By Manning Harris
Aurora Theatre is currently presenting Bruce Norris’ award-winning play “Clybourne Park,” directed by Melissa Foulger and running through Oct. 26.
The play premiered in 2010 Off-Broadway, enjoyed a London run, and finally opened on Broadway in 2012. During that period it was honored with the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony for Best Play, and London’s Olivier Award.
Those are impressive credentials for any work—the kind that can lead modern audiences to adopt a “show me” attitude: Is it really that good?
The answer is yes; this show throbs with vitality. It is funny, powerful, and very in-your-face with the central dilemma of our time: race. Some 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation this country still wrestles with prejudice, fear, and stereotyping. A recognition and embracing of hope and our shared humanity may yet see us through, but we’re not there yet.
Lorraine Hansberry’s watershed drama of 1959 “A Raisin in the Sun” dealt with an African-American family about to move into Clybourne Park, a segregated neighborhood in Chicago. “Clybourne Park” is a direct response to the Hansberry work, and its first act is set in 1959. The brilliance of Mr. Norris is that he can find humor in what could be a totally corrosive situation; yes, you will be laughing (part of the time), for this playwright touches the germ of life, and the characters’ foibles are ridiculous yet irresistible. The play didn’t win all those awards for nothing.
Russ and Bev (Robin Bloodworth and Tess Malis Kincaid) are planning to sell their home in the white, middle-class Clybourne Park; the couple have known tragedy in their lives (I’m not going to reveal everything), and they neither know nor care much that the prospective buyer is black. But their neighbor Karl (Joe Sykes) cares, and he shows up with his pregnant, deaf wife Betsy (Cara Mantella) to plead with them to cancel this transaction. “There goes the neighborhood” has become a sort of joke and cliché, but it’s not funny to Karl. He is, to put it mildly, an obnoxious pest who won’t go away.
Karl even tries to get the approval of Francine (Danielle Deadwyler), Russ and Bev’s housekeeper, who is black, and her husband Albert (Eric J. Little) and asks if they would really want to live in Clybourne Park. Karl tries to illustrate his point with an outrageous yet hilarious analogy about the racial preferences of ski vacations: “There is just something about the pastime of skiing that doesn’t appeal to the Negro community. And feel free to prove me wrong. But you’ll have to show me where to find the skiing Negroes.”
Jim, a local preacher (Bobby Labartino), shows up and is about as ineffectual as Rev. Tooker in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”; which is to say, not at all.
The second act occurs 50 years later, and let’s just say that some positions have been reversed. Both sections of the play are acted by the same ensemble. Now the neighborhood is predominately black, and there are objections raised when a young white couple (Mr. Sykes and Ms. Mantella) want to move into, you guessed it, that same house. A discussion follows, and as usual, tact flies out the window.
This is a fine, award-winning cast. Every actor I mentioned is accomplished and at the top of his/her game. For example, this is the best work I’ve ever seen from Joe Sykes; he’s always good, but he takes advantage of this super script and flies. Ms. Deadwyler is superb and magnetic. Everybody’s eminently watchable. By the way, the play zips by in little more than two hours, one intermission.
Fine set design by Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay. Like Tess Malis Kincaid, they couldn’t be bad if they tried. This is bold, vivid theatre: a bunch of lonely people listening through a filter of resistance. Bravo to Aurora Theatre for bringing us such gutsy, fun stuff. Oh, yes—parental language advisory. Now go see it.
For tickets and information, visit auroratheatre.com.