Saturday, May 18, 2013

Theater Review: Clybourne Park -- Long Wharf

Daniel Jenkins, Alice Ripley, Melle Powers, Alex Moggridge, LeRoy McClain, Jimmy Davis and Lucy Owen. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
Racism Takes Up Residence in Clybourne Park, both Past and Present
By Lauren Yarger
Have you heard the one about a little white man thrown in a jail cell with a big black guy? If not, you can catch this, and a few other offensive jokes over at Long Wharf Theatre, where they pepper the dialogue in Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, the Pulitzer-Prize winning play that explores themes of racism, gentrification and the way Americans relate to each other.

Norris borrows a character from Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun to link stories set in a house in the Clybourne Park section of North Chicago through the decades. In 1959, Russ and Bev (Daniel Jenkins and Tony Award winner Alice Ripley) have sold their home (beautifully designed with bungalow wood trim and detail by Frank Alberino) and are packing for the move. Well, Russ isn’t really doing any of the packing. He’s been sitting around in a funk while Bev supervises her housekeeper, Francine (Melle Powers), who does the work.

Their pastor, tipped off by Bev’s concern about her husband stops by, but Russ isn’t willing to listen to his preaching. He’s still bitter about the death of his son, who committed suicide after his experiences in the Korean War.
The discussion really gets ugly when Hansberry’s character Karl Linder (Alex Moggridge) and his wife, Betsy (Lucy Owen) show up to say the neighborhood association has countered the offer Russ and Bev accepted on their home because the buyers are “colored” (they are, in fact, the Younger family from A Raisin in the Sun). 
He tries to elicit the support of Francine and her husband, Albert (Leroy McClain) in making a case that black families really don’t want to live in Clybourne Park. Tempers flare and some unpleasant truths are exposed about the era’s collective prejudice with regards to race, vets returning from war and physical handicaps (Betsy is deaf and references are made to a mentally challenged individual who bags groceries at the local market).
Fast forward to 2009. The home, now a shell of its former self, covered in graffiti, is destined for demolition by the white couple, Lindsey and Steve (Owen and Moggridge) who have just bought it. They arrive with their attorney, Kathy (Ripley) to meet about a petition they have received by neighbors concerned about the height of the proposed new home (and in reality, about the gentrification of the now black neighborhood as whites seek affordable property within commuting distance to the city). 
Lena (Powers), the great niece of the home’s first black owner, and her husband, Kevin (McClain) show up with their attorney, Tom (Davis) to try to protect the integrity of the neighborhood, where Kathy also has roots, it turns out.
Once again, an attempt to discuss issues in a civilized fashion is thwarted by underlying prejudice (this is where those ugly jokes get told) and before it’s all over, blacks, whites, women, gays and just about everyone else can consider themselves offended by this group which tries to be oh, so politically correct and polite. In the midst of the confusion, a construction worker (Jenkins) discovers a footlocker linking present with past and proving that while some things have changed in this nation with regards to prejudice, we still have a long way to go.
Clybourne Park won last year’s Tony Award for Best Play as well as the 2011 Pulitzer and Olivier. Despite the accolades, this play can tend toward boring at times, even though it is well written and witty and runs only two hours (it doesn’t seem as sharp as other Pulitzer winners to me, but I’ve never won one, so who am I to judge?) Directed by Eric Ting, there also is something missing in the dynamic between characters, though the dual roles are well done by all of the players. (Ripley, usually a dynamo on stage, seems stilted here to me.) The characters say their lines, but there is no energy fueling the electric nature, or undercurrent of what they are saying.
The conversation will continue off stage, however. Long Wharf Theatre and the New Haven Free Public Library have announced “Stage. Page. Engage,” a series of community conversations taking place in May about the complex issues of race and real estate in the city of New Haven.
Local historians Colin Caplan, Tom Ficklin, and Clifton Graves will discuss the evolution of the particular city neighborhood where the conversation is being held. In addition to the local historians, people from each neighborhood are encouraged to attend and offer their own personal perspectives on the place where they live. Ting will introduce each neighborhood exploration with a scene from Long Wharf Theatre’s production of Clybourne Park, presented by local actors. 
All talks are free and open to the public:
  • Saturday, May 18, 1 pm at the Stetson Library, 200 Dixwell Ave. 203-946-8119, with Ficklin and Graves.
  •  Monday, May 20, 6 pm at the Mitchell Library, 37 Harrison St., 203-946-8117, with Ficklin and Caplan.
  •  Tuesday, May 28, 6 pm at the Wilson Library, 303 Washington Ave., 203-946-2228, with Caplan.
  •  Saturday, June, 1 p.m. at the Fair Haven Library, 182 Grand Ave., 203-946-8115, with Ficklin and Caplan.

Clybourne Park runs through June 2 on the Mainstage at Long wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive,
New Haven. Tickets are $40-$70: 203-787-4282: See a video trailer for the show here:

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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