We review the world premiere of Shepsu Aakhu’s newest play Feral, about police shootings and the media circus which follows them, and then K. recommends The Lion in Winter by Promethean Theatre Ensemble at the Athenaeum.
Brian Parry and Jan Ellen Graves in Redtwist Theatre’s production of Clybourne Park, through November 10.
I’ve never quite understood what a number of my friends find racist about the second act of Clybourne Park. Sure, it features black people behaving badly but not nearly as much as the white people they’re dealing with. It’s not the text but the characters who give short shrift to the importance of history in a gentrifying neighborhood, and it’s not the play but free-market economics which causes property values to increase when wealthy white people move into a neighborhood previously occupied by people poorer and darker than they are.
What’s wrong with the second act of Clybourne Park, I realized as I watched Redtwist Theatre’s fine production of the play, is that it’s completely superfluous: the important story playwright Bruce Norris has to tell is complete by the end of Act I. We see the white characters whose behavior and decisions constrain all unaware the decisions made by the Younger family in A Raisin in the Sun. It’s a fascinating change rung on one of the foundation texts of 20th Century American dramatic literature, just as Donald Margulies’ Loman Family Picnic rings changes on Death of a Salesman. Clybourne Park‘s second act, which speculates about real estate transactions in the same neighborhood fifty years later, is actually an entirely different play, though it shares with the first act perfect pitch for the evasions and embarrassments of interracial conversation. But you could go home from a one-act Clybourne Park perfectly satisfied, having had a complete theatrical experience, and I regret that the playwright didn’t leave it at that—though if he had, the Pulitzer Committee might not have come calling.
Steve Scott’s direction of the play likewise has perfect pitch for interracial discomfort, and he’s gotten the best out of his fine cast. Brian Parry, as the paterfamilias of the house being sold, gives an absolutely controlled performance of a character completely out of control, and Jan Ellen Graves matches him in range and depth. These portrayals reveal the value of Chicago’s theatrical model: both are members of the Redtwist ensemble, and they’ve played opposite each other enough times to give real power to this performance as a husband and wife on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Pat Whalen does a fine job with the role of Karl the racist, the one character who appears both in this play and in A Raisin in the Sun.
It’s exciting to see Redtwist’s Clybourne and TimeLine’s Raisin within a few weeks of each other. Audiences get the unusual opportunity to compare and contrast what very different playwrights do with the archetypes Lorraine Hansberry created. This coincidence of production won’t solve the problem of race in this country but at least it reminds us all that the problem hasn’t disappeared. And that’s true with or without Clybourne‘s Act II.