Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Racial Ebb and Flow of Clybourne Park and America

by Pa Rock
Theatre Fan

The 2012-13 theatre season in Phoenix is drawing to a close with what I had assumed, until last night, was to be with far more whimper than bang.   The Arizona Theatre Company's current production of Clybourne Park set that notion to rest with what proved to be a truly remarkable dramatic performance.

Clybourne Park, the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Bruce Norris, is an intense drama about race and and its impact on real estate, and vice-versa.  It is set close to downtown Chicago in the house that was the focal point in Lorraine Hansberry's play from a half century ago, A Raisin in the Sun.

Act one looks at the white family who sold their home on Clybourne Street in the 1950's so that they could move into the suburbs.  According to Norris's rendition of that event, they sold it through an agent and did not know that the buyers were black until after the sale had closed.  There is anger in the neighborhood as fears take hold that more blacks will follow and whites will be forced by their own racial fears to flee to the suburbs - and their home values in the old neighborhood will plummet.  It is an indictment of the real estate practice once known as "block-busting" and the social response commonly called "white flight."

Act two focuses on the same house fifty years later in 2009.  The old house has fallen onto hard times and disrepair through neglect and vandalism.  The white flight pattern has changed, and young urban professionals are now looking at reclaiming neighborhoods in the center of the city so that they can be close to work downtown.    This "gentrification"  process is again changing the character of the neighborhood, only this time it is some of the established black residents who are resistant to the incoming whites.

The casting in the Arizona Theatre Company's production of Clybourne Park was exceptional.  Seven highly talented actors gave their all to fourteen very complicated characters.  An eighth actor appeared briefly in the second act.  Every role was perfectly cast, and the actors demonstrated their craft with perfection and prestigious amounts of dramatic fire.

The members of the audience who strolled out into the lobby between acts missed an important part of the performance.  The set change was a choreographed affair in which movers from the 1950's came onto stage, in character, and proceeded to empty the old house of its packed boxes and furniture.  The background music was from a table radio and typical for the times.  As soon as the house was empty, contemporary, and much more ragged, movers came in with their boom box and modern music.  They proceeded to add fifty years of neglect, graffiti, and trash to the house in just a matter of minutes.  When the set change was complete, the audience gave the movers a round of applause.  The set change was, in effect, an act of its own.

Clybourne Park is a strong social statement that leads us to examine our own feelings and comfort with the subject of race.  It invites introspection and promotes self-awareness..  The Arizona Theatre Company took this great play to the dramatic heights envisioned by the playwright,  Bruce Norris.  It was a great evening of theatre in downtown Phoenix!