Clybourne Park – A Review

By on 28 June, 2014 in Art, Fun, Jesseca Cornelson with 0 Comments

Montgomery truly has a treasure in the Cloverdale Playhouse. It’s a gorgeously renovated theater with a visionary artistic director in Greg Thornton, generous volunteers, and impressive local talent.

For those not familiar with Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, the play’s first act picks up shortly after the end of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun the Saturday before Bev and Russ move out of the house they are selling to the Younger family in 1959 Chicago. The second act takes place 50 years later as a white couple now negotiates the purchase of the same house with representatives of Clybourne Park’s now predominantly-black neighborhood association.

I was surprised that a play taking on historic and contemporary racism — both on a personal level and on a larger social scale in terms of segregated neighborhoods and gentrification — could be so funny. Indeed, I sometimes missed snatches of dialogue because of the raucous audience laughter. And I never thought I’d hear so many first-rate, high-dollar curse words in a renovated church. You’ll want to leave the kids at home for this one, and if you’re easily offended, this might not be the play for you, especially the antagonistic joke-telling scene in the second act that aims to offend practically everyone.

The ensemble cast is excellent. Michael Krek is convincing as Russ in the first act, a father still mourning the death of his son. In the second, he offers brilliant comic relief. Maureen Costello’s Bev evolves from a shrill, harping wife who can’t remember how many children her “good friend” and housekeeper Francine has to a woman who wonders sincerely, “Maybe we should learn what the other person eats. Maybe that would be the solution to some of the — If someday we could all sit down together, at one big table and, and, and, and . . .” Costello’s Kathy in the second half is a competent lawyer confident in her abilities even as men question them.

Christina Okolo, a graduate of Alabama State University’s excellent theater program, deftly balances the demure agreeability necessary for Francine to negotiate her relationship with her white employers in 1959 with subtle suggestions that she is far more astute and opinionated than Bev or Russ might guess. Her 2009 Lena, named after the matriarch of the Younger family, is diplomatic but firm in representing her neighborhood association. Both of Cushing Phillips’ characters, the clergyman Jim and the lawyer Tom, seem to find themselves in the middle of other people’s arguments. Phillips’ performance of Jim as particularly anxiety-ridden is crucial to developing the play’s tensions.

William Allen III, who studied theater at Troy University, is amusing as Francine’s husband Albert, who fails to pick up on his wife’s cues to exit the troubled home and as Lena’s cosmopolitan husband Kevin. As Karl Lindner, Mark Hunter bravely embodies the some of the worst white sentiments during the Civil Rights era, his slicked-back hair reminiscent of George Wallace. As Steve, he portrays the kind of white liberal who seems to assume that his liberalism acquits him of the duty to interrogate his own racial biases and how his individual actions might be part of a larger negative trend. Sarah Adkin’s Betsy, the deaf wife of Karl Lindner, confused me at first. Her characterization of deaf speech is not entirely accurate. But I suspect that, like many other details, is intentional as the play tries to show just how many ways people can offend each other. Her feisty Lindsay first fails to keep her husband on his best behavior and then is as outraged as anyone else by him.

I’m currently teaching an intro to literature class and to get students moving towards interpretation, I have a starter question about what the author’s purpose or message might be. Leaving the theater, perhaps thinking too hard, I wondered about Norris’s intentions. The easy answer is to challenge the audience. We laugh at the racist and sexist jokes, but are we laughing at the actors’ performances as their characters try to one-up each other or does our laughter mean we might be holding on to some prejudiced ideas we need to examine? Is the play a meditation on the various ways social groups (fail to) understand each other? Are we supposed to question not only whether or not something is offensive but also the underlying ideologies that make the possibility of giving or taking offense possible? The play’s parallel structure between 1959 and 2009 certainly invites comparisons between how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go, but its conclusion is tonal rather than philosophical and offers no answers. Is the answer that there are no easy answers?

Earlier, I said that director Greg Thornton is visionary. As I watched Clybourne Park, I kept reminding myself that I was watching it in Montgomery, Alabama, 50 years after Freedom Summer, and that next year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery march. As the second act reminds us, the march surely continues, but when watching Clybourne Park in 2014, Montgomerians black and white sat in a church-turned-theater and laughed together. What a miracle that would have seemed in 1964.

Jesseca Cornelson is an Assistant Professor of English at Alabama State University and is a resident of Cloverdale. She grew up in Mobile and did her graduate studies in the Yankee North, earning degrees at The Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati. She blogged about her visits to Montgomery to do research at her now-defunct blog, Difficult History, and was a Platte Clove Artist-in-Residence, sponsored by the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development.

Clybourne Park runs June 19-22 and 26-29. Show times are at 7:30 on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. on Sundays. For ticket information, visit the Cloverdale Playhouse’s website.

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