Updated: Jan 27
13 years after it exploded in theaters Clybourne park is as funny, cautionary and relevant as ever
by Joel Beers
Where most people see race, Michael Serna sees a community turning its back on one of its own.
At least that’s his take on the first act of Bruce Norris’ 2010 darkly-hued satire “Clybourne Park,” which Serna directs and that opens at Costa Mesa Playhouse beginning Jan. 20. Much has been written about the play since its 2010 premiere, which is no surprise considering it is the only work that has won the new play triple crown: the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2011, the 2011 Olivier Award and the 2012 Tony Award. (“Hamilton” and “A Chorus Line” also nabbed the big three, but the latter two have separate categories for best new musical and best new play).
And rarely does any mention of the play not mention the word race in its description. A few reviews randomly chosen:
The Guardian in 2011: “Combustible mix of race, territory and property prices.”
Hollywood Reporter in 2012: “Satirical sitcom on race, real estate, and communication.”
Chicago Tribune in 2011: “Relentless in its peeling of the racial onion, down to its fetid core.”
It’s not that Serna disagrees with race being a central component of the piece. After all it’s a perspective flip on one of the most important plays in American theater history, Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking 1959 play, “A Raisin in the Sun.” And the house in the all-white neighborhood that the Younger family buys at the end of that play is the same one in Norris’ play. But instead of the Youngers moving in, act 1 begins with the sellers of the house moving out and we see the sale through their perspective. Fifty years later, in act 2, the house is sold again, this time to a white couple who are moving into a now predominantly Black enclave.
Race is also an undercurrent that never feels too far beneath the surface but rarely breaks through mostly because the characters tend to dance around, deny, or witlessly blunder into the subject. It’s teased in the first act, but fully emerges in the second, turning simmering tensions into a full boil that erupts and no one avoids getting burned.
Serna saw one of the earliest productions of Norris’ play at Chicago’s acclaimed Steppenwolf Theater and says that he was struck both by how blisteringly funny the play was and how far the play went with the characters’ “bigotry and stereotypical views.” The racial impact of the play has only amplified in the 13 years since Clybourne Park debuted, Serna says. But most of that impact is delivered in the second act. And because it is so intense, with racist jokes and threats of physical violence swirling, many people walk away remembering that. But what Serna found equally compelling when first seeing it was a first act in which the central conflict had less to do with how people relate to “others” in racial terms than how members of a group relate to each other,
“The heart of that first act, surprisingly, I think, is about family and community,” Serna says. “One family has suffered a deep loss and is dealing with a community that wasn’t accepting of them even before that loss. So there's this deep sense of disconnection coming from feeling ostracized. And what I think Norris is saying with that is that as humans we are drawn to being part of communities, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that those communities are the strongest. Sometimes they can be false communities and even if you think you are with the right people, they may not be on your side.”
While the two acts are obviously connected in that each is set in the same living room of a house that has recently been sold, there are sharp differences in terms of characters and tone. The six-person cast plays a new set of characters in act two, and those roles are far different than their act one personas.
In the first act, set in 1959, gender and ethnic roles are more fixed: the three female roles include a Black maid, a doting housewife and a deaf character whose husband’s protective nature seems a bit controlling.The two Black characters, the maid, Francine, and her husband, Albert, do all the packing and moving as the white characters talk, and are only enlisted in general conversation in a terribly awkward attempt to show that since Black families eat different foods and go to different churches than white folks, why would they want to live by them?
Things are different 50 years later. One woman is now a lawyer and the two who have husbands are anything but subservient. And the two Black characters are now part of the neighborhood housing association and trying to resolve concerns in a neighborhood petition about the new property owners' design plans to destroy the current home and build a McMansion.
However, there is one very big connection between both acts that leads to their explosive climaxes: each hits their respective tipping points largely because characters are uncomfortable or don’t know how to talk about the real issue at hand. And after the ice gradually breaks and cracks emerge in neighborly or politically correct facades, the past collides with the present and characters are pushed to a point that when they finally unload about what’s really on their mind, things get ugly, particularly in the second act.
No one comes off looking their best, and Norris makes no attempt to force a silver lining onto this toxic cloud that suggests a path toward racial reconciliation. That may have been surprising when the play debuted in February 2010. The country’s first Black president had been inaugurated 13 months previously and even if predictions that America had entered a post-racial world had been premature, the promise still lingered. But it had long disappeared by the end of Obama’s first term. Racial tensions had increased, the Republican Party was making a hard right turn, a loudmouth charlatan of a real estate developer was using race as a dog whistle to prey on fears of white economic distress and twist them into blaming the other and then the death of Trayvon Martin in February, 2012 and the series of law enforcement killings of Black people that followed exposed two starkly different perceptions of American life, something many people of color had been saying for decades. But not until the social justice protests in the wake of the murders of Breona Taylor and George Floyd did it finally seem that a majority of white America was ready to acknowledge that maybe it was finally time to listen.
Coming up on three years since that long, turbulent summer of 2020, it seems that we’re more aware of racism, more willing to endorse the canceling of anyone deemed offensive, ready to express our solidarity with the oppressed on social media, and maybe even learned a few new terms like anti-racism, systemic racism, critical race theory, diversity and inclusion, and white fragility.But though we seem to talk about race and racism more than ever, all too often the conversation seems reactionary and punitive, hopelessly politized or misdirected, co-opted or even counterproductive. Like the characters at the end of Clybourn Park, are we talking at one another rather than talking to each other? Does, as one possible reading of this play suggests, the way we talk, or don’t talk, about racism in this country actually further the racial divide?
Given all that, why in the world produce a play where racism seems unstoppable to cure? Doesn’t that just reinforce the notion that nothing can be done?
Maybe. But truly addressing racial inequity means making a conscious choice to do something about it, and that means recognizing there’s a problem and that means seeing the problem. And while it’s not necessarily the most commercially viable route to take, there is something valuable about holding a mirror up to society and plays like “Clybourne Park” do just that.
“I wanted to do this play because I think it’s still important to have discussions about race and other urgent concerns prompted by our art,” Serna says. ‘And as artists and creators, a play like this is an opportunity to maybe open up that discussion.
Taj Young, who plays Francine in the first act and Lena in the second, agrees. As one of the two Black actors in this production and as a woman, she is part of the subset of the population that has long endured discrimination and oppression on both the ethnic and gender fronts, as do the two characters she portrays. That makes this play particularly relevant to her. But there is another connection to her characters that may be as important: like them, she is a mother and she has a vested interest in her 7-month-old boy growing up in a society where he can flourish. But that will take real change, something she thinks seemed tantalizingly possible in the summer of 2020, but has lost momentum.
“During the pandemic, everyone had to stay inside and see all these jarring things on TV and it seemed they were paying attention and realized that something had to be done about it. But as soon as we got back to operating the way we were before, that idea of change kind of withered away. But even if it’s not as popular of an idea, and people aren't acknowledging it as much, that change still has to happen.”
But for real change to happen, Young says people’s hearts must change. So she has no time for those who scoff at the notion that art can’t change the world; she feels like she has no choice but to try, even if it's just one heart at a time.
“My hope is that the audience walks away realizing that the issues in this play aren’t things that happened in 2009 or the 1950s,” she said. “These things still exist and will continue to exist until they’re changed. And all I can hope for as an actor is that through my work a seed gets planted in someone. Even if somebody doesn’t go out and do something right away, if that seed settles in someone’s heart, it can grow.”
Joel Beers is a freelance journalist and journalism instructor at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He has also written and adapted 10 full-length plays produced in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Costa Mesa Playhouse
661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa, 92627
January 20 - February 12, 2023
(949) 650-5269, www.costamesaplayhouse.com