Clybourne Park — Image via guthrietheater.org

Clybourne Park

Guthrie Theater
Directed by Lisa Peterson

The Guthrie’s current production of Clybourne Park (2010), written by Bruce Norris and directed by Lisa Peterson, makes for a worthwhile night at the theater, as it gives viewers the chance to watch skilled actors make something entertaining and, at times, powerful, out of words and ideas that hold the possibility of genuine depth and rousing provocation, but constantly fall short of the mark. These misses are largely rooted in the play’s tendency to go for an easy joke or a tired cliché in lieu of a careful examination of the issues that have been raised or the questions that have been asked. In other words, the performance was solid, the play itself, less so.

Clybourne Park was figured by Norris as a sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 A Raisin in the Sun, the end of which features the Youngers, a black working class family residing in Chicago’s segregated neighborhood of Hamilton Park, about to move to Clybourne Park, a more prosperous part of the city, where they will be the only black family in the neighborhood. At the end of Raisin, Karl Lindner, a representative from the neighborhood association of Clybourne Park, attempts to buy the house from the Youngers to prevent them from moving, an offer the Youngers refuse. Clybourne Park opens just as Linder (Jim Lichtscheidl) is returning from his meeting with the Youngers and as Bev (Kathryn Meisle) and Russ (Bill McCallum), the residents of the house the Youngers have purchased, are packing for a move that will situate them closer to Russ’s new office.

The first act, set in 1959, is certainly the most successfully written of the two. It opens with a discussion of the word “Neapolitan” (prompted by the ice cream Russ is snacking on), which then leads to extended chatter about the names used to refer to the nationalities of people living in foreign countries, none of which we are meant to think Russ and Bev have visited (they mention relatives who have gone to Paris as if this is the height of exoticism), but rather places that Russ has read about in his National Geographic magazines. The dialogue isn’t meant to make us see the couple as worldly, per se, but it does portray Russ’s curiosity about the world outside his neighborhood and also illustrates Bev’s adoration for her husband and his seemingly vast body of knowledge.

Clybourne Park — Image via guthrietheater.orgOne successful aspect of Norris’s writing is his ability to create complex characters who are at turns both sympathetic and reprehensible. Interestingly, their complexity does not hinder Norris from passing judgment on them. Bev is, at times, an overly hammy housewife, who bustles, worries, nags, and tries to pass off household goods she no longer wants to her black hired help despite their protests, and yet when those around her express anger at the thought of a black family moving into Clybourne Park, she is the only character who explicitly expresses her support for the idea. She is, in short, both exasperating and on the side of right.

Karl Lindner, the clear villain of Raisin, continues the role in Clybourne Park. Norris’s effort to humanize him by showing his concern for his pregnant wife, Betsy (Emily Gunyou Halaas), doesn’t really temper his villainy, and nor does the tale we hear about the stillborn child his wife gave birth to two years previously. In direct contrast to Bev, Karl is endearingly awkward but also clearly in the wrong. While he’s doing his best to support his family and build the type of neighborhood he thinks most suitable to live in, he’s still, straightforwardly, a bigot.

It’s a testament to every actor on stage that they are able to portray such wide and often contradictory emotional and moral ranges. Kathryn Meisle as Bev is convincing as an irritating goad at one turn, a fragile and grieving mother at the next, and a passionate (if somewhat naïve) advocate for equality at yet another. Jim Lichtscheidl as Karl is likeably nerdy one moment and full of hateful words about the necessity of racial segregation the next. Bill McCallum as Russ is a beautifully realized contrast between stoic repression and tempestuous rage that only seems to surface when he is pushed to think too hard about his dead son, Kenneth (Steven Lee Johnson).

Despite the neighbors’ pleas and protests, Bev and Russ tell Lindner that nothing can alter their decision to sell their house to the Youngers — largely, we learn, because they are desperate to flee the neighborhood that they feel is partially responsible for the death of their son. Kenneth, a Korean War veteran who confessed to killing civilians, was ostracized by the residents of Clybourne Park, contributing to his eventual suicide. It is possible that Bev and Russ refuse to retract the deal they’ve made with the Youngers simply because they are determined to leave the neighborhood, but Norris also suggests that, through their son’s death, Bev and Russ may have developed a degree of empathy for those who, for whatever reason, aren’t embraced by white middle class society. The ostracism that Kenneth received is perhaps not too far removed from the ostracism that the Youngers will likely face for the crime of being black in an all-white neighborhood in mid-twentieth century America. In one outburst that is over almost before it has been uttered, Russ makes a comment about Kenneth being asked to defend his country without realizing the worthlessness of the people he was defending, showing that Russ is largely disenchanted with the lie of American fairness and unity. This disenchantment suggests that he might be open to considering the plights of groups of people, other than maligned veterans, who have similarly been mistreated. The fact that Francine (Shá Cage), the African-American woman who works for Bev and Russ, is the one who finds Kenneth’s body further solidifies the realization that Bev and Russ seem to have reached, even if only subconsciously, that the fear and hypocrisy that killed their son are not entirely unrelated to the fear and hypocrisy that are attempting to keep the Youngers out of Clybourne Park.

Clybourne Park — Image via guthrietheater.orgThis sort of authorial clarity that manages not to compromise the complexity of the characters is singular to the first act, perhaps because of the benefit of more than fifty years of hindsight that has allowed Norris to reflect upon the tangled skeins of American race relations, while the second act, set in 2009, is still too fresh, too undigested, to make such concrete observations about. Or perhaps Norris is suggesting, probably falsely, that race relations in the 1950s were simply more straightforward than they are in the twenty-first century. This viewpoint, of course, is little more than a romanticization of an often mythologized era (the fifties) where everything was apparently simpler, even the bigotry. These contrasting depictions between the way race was understood and talked about in 1959 versus 2009 are clearly purposeful on the playwright’s part and he certainly suggests that people fifty years ago were more capable of having sophisticated conversations about race than they are now, but this assertion is largely tempered by the type of people he chooses to write about in act two. Surely not every person walking around the United States in the year 2009 was as misguided as the six characters Norris has created, all college educated, professionally successful, and culturally and historically literate enough to believe (or at least know that they should believe) that race is “important” while having very few ideas about why this is the case.

In act two, we find ourselves drawn into the living room of the same house we saw in 1959, but now in a badly deteriorated state, a representation of the changes we’re meant to think the neighborhood has been slowly undergoing. Despite the problems we’re told Clybourne Park has had with poverty, drugs, unemployment, and violence, we’re also told, euphemistically, that the neighborhood is on the upswing and that people with economic means are beginning to buy property there due to its desirable architecture and close proximity to Chicago’s downtown business district. The group we see assembled in an informal semi-circle of folding chairs consists of Lindsey (Halaas) and Steve (Lichtscheidl), a young white couple hoping to buy the house; their lawyer, Kathy (Meisle); Kevin (Ansa Akyea) and Lena (Cage), a young black couple who live in the neighborhood and represent the neighborhood association; and their lawyer, Tom (Peter Christian Hansen). The issue the group has gathered to discuss is the renovations Lindsey and Steve are planning, which seem to basically entail tearing the house down and putting a new and larger one in its place (complete with koi pond). Lena and Kevin are concerned, rightfully, that this will change the character of the neighborhood. The group has met in an attempt to come to a solution that will please all parties, an impossible feat.

Watching the play for the first time without being familiar with the script, it took me close to twenty minutes to ascertain that this was actually the issue at hand, as the group constantly gets sidetracked by chitchat about the countries they have visited and acquaintances they hold in common. Hearing these characters rhapsodize about their overseas adventures in Prague, Morocco, Spain, and Switzerland, chances are most viewers will find themselves wishing they could return to the National Geographic inspired prattle of Russ and Bev. These hip and modern young people don’t marvel at the world outside their doors, don’t treat it with the ignorant but fairly benign wonder we saw in act one. Rather, they move in, take a look around, and, with very little of the curiosity displayed by Russ and Bev, assert mastery over it, talk about it with ease and comfort as if a country thousands of miles away is as familiar to them as the neighborhoods where they grew up. There is an eagerness present in most of them to prove to each other that they are citizens of a world they traverse without the fears and limitations of the generations that came before, whom they associate with a type of biased provincialism that they have long since left behind.

If there is a place where Norris shines in this second act, it is in depicting the sense of entitlement, the strained congeniality, and the low-simmering self-righteousness that these characters have. What they suffer from most starkly, and each in their own way, is staggering superficiality that renders them unable to think about anything systemically. Rather, they are only able to access and interpret the world through the limitations that their own experiences and histories have shackled them to. We see this in the way each character conceives of and relates to the neighborhood of Clybourne Park. Steve and Lindsey, the buyers, are constantly tripping over and talking around their white liberal guilt about being the agents of gentrification, but they also can’t quite shake the feeling that their mere presence in Clybourne Park will add value to a neighborhood that, in their words, has spent the past fifty years in a state of decline. Kathy and Tom, as lawyers, seem to mostly view the neighborhood as a series of potential legal headaches their clients might have to face. The one time Kathy mentions her personal connection to the neighborhood, it is to say that her grandparents lived there, a touching story, but illustrative of how the connection she has to the place can only be expressed through familial specificity. Similarly, Lena, who is the niece of Lena Younger from Hansberry’s play, sees Clybourne Park with quasi-mystical reverence as a place that embodies the struggle her ancestors endured while living there. Kevin, a chronic people pleaser, vacillates between agreeing that the neighborhood has seen some hard times and taking offense at Steve, Lindsey, and Kathy’s deterministic assumptions about the supposed connections between criminality and race. In a neighborhood that is clearly imbued with many intersecting histories, complex social and political interactions, economic fluctuations, and both myriad prejudices and myriad kindnesses, it is telling and tragic that these six characters are only able to understand Clybourne Park through the narrow lens of their own agendas.

Clybourne Park — Image via guthrietheater.orgGiven the intellectual and emotional contortions that each character has clearly undergone in order to be able to live with themselves, it is a testament to all the actors’ skill that they are able to deliver nearly every line of dialogue in a way that maintains civility (most of the time) and also points to the damaged psyches brewing underneath, states of mind that each character tries hard to hide and can’t quite manage. The fact that the same actors play different characters in each act not only testifies to each actor’s range, but also allows Norris to interrogate the nature of change (the housewife and priest have both become lawyers, the demure domestic worker has found her voice, and the man in the gray flannel suit has become a construction worker). It’s clever and probing playwriting (if perhaps a bit too tidy) and it is a shame, really, that this level of subtlety cannot also be seen in Norris’s rendering of contemporary dialogues about racialized politics.

As alluded to in the opening paragraph, contemporaneous discussions of race are where and how the play falls down, a disappointing outcome in light of Hansberry’s play, which has sparked explorations of how race is understood and lived in America ever since it was first staged. About halfway through the second act, a frustrated Steve asks the group why they can’t admit that their discussions about preserving the character of the neighborhood, honoring the past, and the inevitability of change are really veiled ways of talking about race. His observation is astute, for while the conversation is about many things (class, taste, power, real estate laws, and building codes to name just a few), it is also most certainly about race. Steve’s comment presents a real moment for the play to do something profound, to stage discussions of sensitivity and depth rarely seen on stage, or anywhere else for that matter. It’s an opportunity, however, that the play sadly misses, as all the characters immediately erupt in response to Steve’s utterance, many of them attacking him (including his own wife) for bringing race into a discussion where it apparently has no place. Norris obviously felt that his characters were not intelligent enough, honest enough, or brave enough to discuss this subject like the enlightened adults they believe themselves to be, which is a valid artistic decision on his part, but ultimately dissatisfying.

Perhaps Norris feels that American society has not yet attained the level of maturity needed to allow for this type of nuanced discussion to happen (a viewpoint I happen to disagree with), but in any case, his distrust of his characters’ ability to behave as anything other than children when the topic of race is introduced leads to a second act that fails to posit what a serious, honest, sensitive, and complex discussion about race in America might look like. Instead, whenever the discussion gets too “heavy,” too intense, too close to actually acknowledging the pain stemming from a history that many Americans of all colors are still living with, not to mention the many modern forms of discrimination that still exist, a joke, a gaff, an unbelievably ignorant statement is quickly interjected, effectively catapulting the conversation back into safe simplicity. (Please, can someone impose at least a twenty year moratorium on some stuttering and clearly frightened white person trying to talk themselves out of a corner by announcing that they have several black friends? Maybe there was a time when this was funny and incisive commentary on the intricacies of racism, but nowadays it’s just tired and lazy writing.) Watching these characters blunder in, through, and around actual communication, it was almost as if Russ’s inability and unwillingness to think about Kenneth’s death too deeply or for very long is mirrored in these six characters’ inability and unwillingness to engage their thinking in any way meaningful enough to potentially compromise or threaten the supposed truths about color-blindness, liberalism, and worldliness that they have tenuously built around themselves.

The play closes with an image of Kenneth, Russ and Bev’s dead son, sitting in the dilapidated house of 2009 and writing his suicide note. Kenneth’s appearance is likely a reminder of the trauma that took place in the house in Clybourne Park (although no doubt there was plenty of trauma experienced by the Younger family as well that doesn’t get the privilege of depiction) and a connection is being established with the “ghosts” of America’s past, ones that, like Kenneth, can still be seen and felt today. With the link that is made in the first act between Kenneth’s death and the policies of racial exclusion that the majority of Clybourne Park residents would like to maintain, Norris uses the ghost as a type of cautionary presence, a reminder that as long as people refuse to see those who differ from them as being entirely human, America will remain a haunted nation. This poignant symbol makes it doubly disheartening that the play relied on easy humor when it could have held insight, snappy punch lines where it could have served up hard hitting punches. The ghosts of America’s fraught racial history are still stirring, and Norris’s play does very little to put them to rest.

Photos by Michael Brosilow

Published by

Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.

One thought on “Clybourne Park”

  1. Thanks for this insightful and detailed analysis of Clybourne Park. I just read the play for the first time, although I’ve heard of it. I am a Canadian playwright who missed our local company’s production of the play and wished I hadn’t. There were some damn fine actors in the production. As I am a Canadian I would have a different view of the play, I’m sure. Our local reviewer who is well-respected, did not care for the play at all (though sometimes he can be cranky). He found Act One out-dated, offering nothing new, and Act Two too simple. He also took offence at the playwright’s depiction of the deaf character. The inclusion of the deaf character confused me also. Some say she represents a person or country or community struggling to find its voice or people unable to hear each other etc. But she is a person who is deaf and I find it incredibly irresponsible of Norris to use her state of being deaf, which can put one at a disadvantage when no one else in the room is and is communicating without inclusion. I am not Deaf, but work at a college that has a large Deaf and hard of hearing department and so interact regularly with colleagues and students who are. I wonder what their reaction might be. Anyway, I would be interested in your comments on this matter. I also found it strange that Norris in an interview said that when he saw Raisin in the Sun he most identified with the character of Karl. What’s up with that? Your point that Steve actually makes space for real discussion when he says (I’m paraphrasing) “Why don’t we say what this is about: race.” is interesting. We here in Canada pride ourselves on being multi-cultural, but of course we have our own prejudices. I just wonder if someone here said something like that what the reaction in the room would be. I guess it would matter who said it. I did enjoy reading the play, but as I mentioned had some real concerns. I also didn’t understand the way the house was depicted in A2 as dilapidated and what that said to an audience. If a neighbourhood is predominantly black does that mean it’s automatically ‘run-down’? I suppose I’m simplifying things, but it does hit hard in such a visual way, it’s got to be saying something. Anyway, thanks again.

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