Writing a prequel/sequel to Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun sounds like a chancy and potentially gimmicky proposition, bordering on infringing upon the merits of another author, but playwright Bruce Norris has cleared the inherent hurdles and written a masterpiece with Clybourne Park. Making its Broadway début at the Walter Kerr with a cast and production that do it every bit of justice, this is easily one of the greatest original plays to hit New York City in the last decade.
Writing no heroes and few clear-cut villains, Norris has created one of the most honest and galvanizing plays about the current state of racial tension. Unlike so many others, he does not look to shock with epithets and extreme versions of racism to lend weight to his words, but rather works subtly, even-handedly distributing comedy and drama, using each to enrich the potency of the other. His characters are honest (embarrassingly so at times), sympathetic in their flaws, and thoroughly human. It is particularly fascinating to match the first-act characters with their second-act counterpoints -- and a little unsettling to see some of the connections. His dialog is appropriately mundane, guarded in moments, yet rises to realistic peaks when the pressures overtake the humor of the scene and real opinions and feelings begin to break through the loosely maintained surface of socially acceptable behavior.
The cast gives a powerful ensemble performance free of any weak links. Frank Wood divides his performances between removed, seething Russ and comically oblivious Dan. As Russ, Wood brilliantly represents a man on the edge who inadvertently allows the beginning of the desegregation of a neighborhood not so much out of any sympathy for blacks but rather due to his disgust with the other whites in his community. Both Woods and Norris leave the character open to be potentially racist, but are more concerned with meaningful emotions of personal pertinence. Jeremy Shamos leaves no such questions with his portrayal of Karl, creating the piece's most easily deplorable character, yet crafting him with comedy and an honesty that forces the audience to see the reasons for his position, however unenlightened.
As Steve, Shamos depicts a more common, modern-day white man who is not blatantly racist but more silently frustrated with how to come to terms with the injustices of the past and the awkward position that leaves him in. Damon Gupton's Kevin suffers from similar complications, but seen from a different angle, keenly portraying both Kevin and Albert (his first act half) as men looking to build bridges but pushed to the defensive. Crystal A. Dickinson gives a powerful performance as both Francine and Lena; she breaths the suffering of black woman of a previous era and proclaims the current struggle of a black woman fighting to have that suffering and progress acknowledged, but is at the same time shut off by her own intentions. Both Annie Parisse and Christina Kirk mine the comic value of those who are overly insistent on their racial open-mindedness and inadvertently offensive with their sensitivities. Kirk is particularly gifted at humming beneath the radar in the second act, but surfacing in her appointed moments with oblivious touches of beautiful comedy.
Director Pam MacKinnon gambles with her staging and comes out an inspired winner. Taking chances with what could be thought of as stagnation in Act II that pay off in later eruptions, MacKinnon also uses this ridged line to support the theme of stilted relations that Norris is playing with in the script. She utilizes a relaxed hand with her actors, allowing them to move in more natural and occasional anti-theatrical ways, but maintains a complete evenness about the piece that displays her vision and comprehension of the subject. Daniel Ostling creates a luminous and daring set design, particularly with its blunt and unvarnished depiction of what became of the house after the neighborhood changed.
Clybourne Park is an insightful, honest and welcomed view of current racial relations and tensions as well as an exploration of some of their origins, crafted with a perfect and flowing blend of comedy and tragedy. Discussing this play and individual reactions to it and its characters in a mixed racial setting could easily fire off some interesting debates, potentially ugly, and possibly the kinds of open and honest conversations we should be having to work towards understanding one another. - C. Jefferson Thom
Walter Kerr Theatre: 219 West 48th St.
Photo: Nathan Johnson (L-R: Damon Gupton, Annie Parisse, Crystal A. Dickinson, Jeremy Shamos)
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.