World War II ushered numerous changes into the landscape of daily life in America. There was prosperity combined with huge manufacturing capacity resulting in the massive growth of the automobile, home appliances, and the ability to build on a massive scale outside traditional city centers.
The war had also profoundly set off change to nearly all pre-war social structure in America. Women and other minorities had joined the workforce in unprecedented numbers. The military was eventually integrated and many of the black soldiers who found respect in the war found returning to the segregation and Jim Crow of the south intolerable.
Capital Stage season opener, “Clybourne Park,” tells the effect of the largest mass migration in American history on one fictional Chicago neighborhood of what became labeled as "white flight."
White flight is the amazingly self fulfilling concept that if a minority, in this case African Americans that had migrated from the south, by moving into an all white neighborhood would cause the whites to flee to the suburbs, accompanied by large decreases of property values.
Imagine all the hysteria of Y2K only instead of faceless computers and software to fear and hate, it was the family (black) moving in next door and the family (white) that sold the house, escaped to the new, safe suburbs leaving you with your most valuable possession, your home, rapidly declining in value and with it the ability for your own (white) family to do the same.
This story has been told before from the perspective of the black family who are the first to “break the color barrier” as it was called and be the first black family, who by paying a premium to the first white family, manage to move into an all white neighborhood and triggering “white flight,” in Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking and game changing “A Raisin in the Sun.”
“Clybourne Park” playwright Bruce Norris cleverly sets act one of the story in the living room of the first house in the neighborhood to “be sold to coloreds,” in the year 1959, the year that “A Raisin in the Sun” premiered on Broadway.
Here Norris looks at what is happening with the folks selling the house and their relationship with the existing community. It is just a few days to moving day and homeowners Russ, Jonathan Rhys Williams giving one of his excellent performances, and Bev, a marvelous Shannon Mahoney, trying to avoid coming to terms with not only the impending clash with the community but also their own personal demons.
Russ is haunted by his war experience and the tragic loss of a child, while Bev suffers from not being able to help Russ, her loss of their child and not knowing what her roll as a woman really is now. Both in their own way is on the edge of what was known as a “nervous breakdown.”
Neighbor Karl, the only character from “Raisin,” arrives directly from meeting with the black family that is buying the house, a scene in “Raisin,” angry that they turned down a higher offer from the neighborhood association to sell the house to the association.
Karl has arrived with pregnant and deaf wife Betsy. The household domestic and her husband are already in the room along with the neighborhood minister. All except Betsy get to listen to Karl rail on, until, at least Russ isn’t going to have any more.
Norris an another clever and effective move sets the action in act two in the same living room only fifty years later. Present are a couple moving from the suburbs into the now hot, gentrified residential district of Clybourne Park. They have their lawyer with them as they are meeting with representatives of the neighborhood association, a black couple and a single white man.
The meeting is over the insufferable yuppies’ plan to demolish the house or greatly enlarge it to build their McMansion. A worker keeps coming in with bad news on the condition of the existing house. To say the meeting doesn’t go well would be an understatement.
While 50 years later everyone is better educated, overt racism is not acceptable, we all may even work and socialize with each other, and there is even a black man from Chicago in the White House racism can still be as strong as ever, especially when and ethnic minority stands in the way of what someone who has lived white privilege wants.
Arron Wilton is astounding as Karl/Steve really the same character, who is formed by his racism whether as a young head of household afraid of loosing property value or the young man of entitlement simply not getting his own way.
Shannon Mahoney who totally embodies the neurotic Bev with hands constantly in motion even if the rest of her stops to listen to the equally neurotic in his own way, Russ, in the first act, gets a lot of the laughs as the yuppies’ lawyer in the second act.
Stephanie Altholz, Atim Udoffia, Dan Fagan, and Beethovan Oden give sold performances of their characters from two different generations.
A shout out to Lalena Hutton’s costume design. Bev’s dress alone is one of the best uses of costume to help set the sense of time and character alone.
Bruce Norris deserves his Olivier for Best Play, Pulitzer for Drama, Theater World Award and Tony Award for Drama. His script for “Clybourne Park is intelligent and very funny while saying a great deal. Is there always someone who has to fall behind for someone to get ahead? Do we strive to be better than others with the result of someone always to look down on? Is racism still a shortcut to being better than others? Even when America has a black president can America still have as much racism as when Lorraine Hansberry wrote “A Raisin in the Sun?”
Great, even good, theatre is highly entertaining, even while teaching profound lessons, especially this Capital Stage production of “Clybourne Park. One of the valuable results of “Clybourne Park”‘s that it fostered the return to Broadway of “A Raisin in the Sun.”
I highly encourage everyone to see this excellent production You will be very entertained while being informed about how racism impacted how Americans lived a half century ago as well as how it still is less than a decade ago, i.e. today.
“Claybourne Park” Capital Stage Through October 6, 2013
Editor’s note: Photo credit has been changed on all photos to reflect the accurate information.
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