Thanks to a generous friend who hated to see a single comp go to waste, I managed to catch a production of Clybourne Park at my neighborhood LORT, the San Diego REP. It’s a good show for that theatre –all suburban angst meets urban grittiness, literally. And it only closed on Broadway six months ago, so a bit of a literary management coup.
Based on Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Bruce Norris’s play garnered Tony, Pulitzer and Olivier Awards. This trifecta is rare enough to make any theatre artist take note of what this kind of excitement is about. The first act of Clybourne Park offers a drama centered on the other side of Hansberry’s tale –that is, on the people selling their house in a white neighborhood to the coloreds.
One character is common to Hansberry’s play and Norris’s –the neighborhood committee representative who offers to buy out the black family’s interest in the house rather than let them move in. Though this is not a review, I’d be remiss not to comment that my friend played that role admirably, but his real tour-de-force came in the second act, where a particular brand of white male cluelessness is revealed. It was daring work my friend did, finding a very honest representation of that guy within himself.
Certainly part of this is in the writing, as playwright Norris acknowledges that this play came from some identification of himself with that role. However, it is the structural dramaturgy of the play that’s most interesting.
That first act makes Clybourne Park seem a conventional script, and tricks you into thinking intelligent kitchen sink drama. It is, after all, a compliment to the play that inspired it, Hansberry’s classic. There is, to be sure, a Milleresque feel and frame added here, with (Miller spoiler alert) a despondent father whose secret –a son somehow lost— destroys him and his long-suffering spouse. However, the eye for social criticism becomes sharpened by hindsight, and we are able to view key modern issues – of race, gender, class— in their own historical perspective as well as our own.
This effect is intensified as the second act of Clybourne Park takes us to the same property today, where “white flight” to the suburbs has been replaced by a privileged white couple struggling to integrate themselves into a more complex cityscape and milieu. A question about height restriction places them before an integrated neighborhood committee who is increasingly repelled by their new neighbors. Much of the second act revolves around a scurrilous joke, offensive on a number of levels.
However, the second act’s real power derives from skillfully weaving-in elements from the first act. The resulting contrasts and continuities in race, gender and class relationships across half-a-century of shifting cultural norms –an effect given the spin of double-casting, forcing the audience to see the characters in two roles, juxtaposing ideas in echoes with other enduring or outmoded ideas and causing us compare how they exemplify various aspects of historical consciousness vs. willful cluelessness, silent complicity vs. outspoken criticism, social welfare vs. self-reliance, economic and social privilege vs. social and political egalitarianism.
The scope of this is what is truly amazing. A trope in the first act about exotic countries and the proper formation of their adjectives (“Neopolitan?”) reappears as a question of capitals. It seems a trivial point, but juxtaposes a period where knowledge of the globe is limited to National Geographic and a period in which global travel is a common privilege of certain classes.
The two act set-up allows the house to become a character, and tell its story. In 1959 it is conventional, partly kitsch, hides secrets. Fifty years later, it is distressed, with a broken stair-rail, door of its hinge, broken window, graffiti everywhere.
That decay is in itself a powerful statement, the house a testimony to personal and cultural events of transformational power. It is an approach to story-telling that yields tremendous scope.
It makes me wonder about the limits of our dramaturgy. Our literary traditions and the realities of cost-effectiveness for the stage favor a limited number of settings. This means stories transpire on single sets, within units of time that are relatively compressed.
It is possible, though, that some problems require a vision and viewpoint that can rise above personal experience of transitory time and see continuities across longer periods of it. Some stories require scope, either in geographic or chronological terms.
Clybourne Park is not, of course, the first play to do this. It may, though, be breaking new ground in integrating this vision with stage naturalism, with kitchen sink, if you will.
Theatre of scope and vision works well when it is presented within a ritual frame. Metamorphosis, for example, made meaningful statements about life that are articulated outside the confines of our day-to-day realities. But that kind of theatre is based on spectacle.
There is something to be said for finding scope and vision within the frame of stage naturalism –looking at larger questions using cutting-edge slice-of-life imaging technology that great acting is.
Here’s hoping many more plays model themselves on this winner of the awards trifecta.