Monday, June 23, 2014

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Clybourne Park"

Guest Reviewer: Layne Holley -- River Region Theatre Artist

Is post-racial America a reality? Audiences at the Cloverdale Playhouse's production of Bruce Norris's "Clybourne Park" may find themselves grappling with this and many similar questions regarding how well we have or haven't accepted the "other" in our society.

Norris's script, awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play, is a companion piece to Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play "A Raisin in the Sun" (staged recently at the Playhouse), about a Black family's struggle to brake out of the confines of poverty and the racism they encounter in their efforts. -- The play is a witty, often scathing examination of racism and other "isms" that still exist and may even be made worse by people's attempts to make themselves and others believe that they don't.

"Clybourne Park" opens in 1959, just two hours after the conclusion of the action in "A Raisin in the Sun", in the home of Russ and Bev (Michael Krek and Maureen Costello). -- Danny Davidson's costumes are a solid success in establishing the period. -- Russ and Bev, a white couple in an all-white neighborhood, are grieving over the loss of their son who was taunted by neighbors when the returned from the Korean War, and have just completed the sale of their Clybourne Park home to a Black family: the Younger family from "Raisin". -- Neighbor, friend and fellow Rotarian, Karl (Mark Hunter, continuing his willingness and honing his ability to portray "the man we love to hate"), is the one character who also appears in Hansberry's play, where he represented the "Welcoming Committee" in trying to convince the Youngers to back out of their plan; here he barges in to inform Russ and Bev that this Black family will destroy the neighborhood and drive down property values. But, as Bev asks: shouldn't Black people have the right to live in better neighborhoods?

Although Bev seems sympathetic to Black people's endeavors to improve their circumstances, her patronizing behavior towards her housekeeper Francine (Christina Okolo) and her husband Albert (William Allen, III, who has natural comic timing), as well as toward Karl's deaf wife Betsey (Sarah Adkins), reveals that she has her own prejudices, even if she is unaware of them. Ms. Costello handily balances both the silliness and gravity of Bev's blithe un-awareness of her flawed perspective.

Karl is relentless in his argument. He threatens to reveal Russ and Bev's family tragedy that took place in the house as a way of driving the Black family to back out of the sale. Russ is disgusted by Karl's blatant racism, but even more so by Karl's attempts to control him.

Matters are not helped by the presence of Jim, the local minister (Cushing Phillips, III) who would of course offer to help with moving day activities if only his back wasn't injured; Jim's physical impotence mirrors his inability to offer spiritual guidance in the argument between Karl and Russ.

Act II opens fifty years later when the now all-Black neighborhood is re-gentrifying. -- Ed Fieder's simple, warm, functional set undergoes a transformation that captures well the passage of time and condition. -- The same actors return as a new crop of characters, arguing now about the same house and how the new homebuyers (white yuppies Steve and Lindsey, played by Mr. Hunter and Ms. Adkins) will ruin the historic value of the neighborhood.

Homeowners Association members a Black couple (Lena and Kevin, played by Ms. Okolo and Mr. Allen) and a gay man (Tom, played by Mr. Phillips) are trying to reach an agreement with Steve and Lindsey about their planned house renovations. --Lena, it seems, is related to the Youngers from "Raisin", and is actually named after Mrs. Lena Younger from that play, so she has a critical stance in the proceedings. -- Seemingly friendly negotiations about setbacks, easements, and elevations among a racially and socially diverse group, whose members appear to be forward thinkers when it comes to acceptance and equality, slowly devolve into accusations and downright actions of prejudice and stereotyping, complete with crude jokes that run from insidious to blatant in their offensiveness to various groups of people. As might be expected, negotiations break down, leaving everyone somewhere between enmity and actual hatred toward one another.

The play ends with a flashback to the 1950s, just before Russ and Bev's family tragedy. Their son Kenneth (Braxton McDonald) is composing a suicide note when Bev interrupts him and with worried optimism tells him that she feels that things are about to change. -- This brief scene captures the irony that runs throughoUt the play; yes, things are changing, but not perhaps in the way we hope or expect.

This production of "Clybourne Park" makes audiences both laugh and cringe, even at themselves. Director Greg Thornton has thoughtfully led this ensemble to a victory in showing us a mirror of out successes and failures as a "unified" society. -- It deserves the audience ovations and praise it has received in its opening weekend.