theater review

Theater Review: Clybourne Park Is a Mighty Racial Cage Match

Clybourne Park Photo: Nathan Johnson Photography

Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’s dyspeptic mini-epic of race, rage, and real estate, begins in a house in 1959 Chicago and concludes in that same house in 2009, at the dawn of the uneasy Obama Age. No cosmic Thornton Wilder dramaturgy required: This is just an old-fashioned two-act wormhole with White Flight at one end and gentrification, its blithe hipster twin, at the other. What’s changed in between? Not as much as you’d hope, posits Norris, who underlines his argument by deploying the same set of (fearless, fantastic) actors to play perversely analogous parts in both timelines. 

Writing with quick, balled fists, debriding wit and feisty gloom (q.v. The Pain and the Itch, his earlier, bitterer experiment in white-liberal vivisection), Norris is unafraid of sacrilege: He grafts Clybourne — all withering contempt, heartsick disappointment, and lip-smacking cynicism — off that great sequoia of uplift A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s mid-century landmark in racial rapprochement for then mostly white Broadway. Fifty years later, still mostly white Broadway is treated to the story of the whites who sold their house to Raisin’s upwardly mobile black family and the ultimate fate of the neighborhood they left behind, and let’s just say uplift is not the primary force at work. Upthrusts, maybe — jagged social tectonics accompanied by immediate cave-ins: These better describe Norris Country, which is similar to the karst ground God of Carnage trod more clumsily and clownishly a couple of seasons ago. Abandon all pieties, ye preening progressives (white or black) who enter here. Clybourne, which took the Pulitzer in 2011, is an excellent play that doesn’t quite rise to greatness. Ultimately, when all the riotous bloodletting is done, Norris substitutes a haunted, cursed-be-Cain melancholy for true moral conclusiveness. But the show is brutally effective comic pessimism, a near-perfect blend of two great American literary pastimes: the comedy of bad manners and the gloves-off, say-anything racial cage match.

We open with a smothering act of unasked-for charity: Bev Stoller (Christina Kirk), a sugar-sweet mad-housewife sort, is packing up for the family’s move and tries to foist an unused silver chafing dish on her resistant black housekeeper Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson), who’s already chafing plenty under Bev’s patronizing noblesse oblige. Russ Stoller (Frank Wood), Bev’s laconic-to-the-point-of-semaphore husband, sits reading National Geographic and fending off the ministrations of a solicitous young priest (Brendan Griffin), and we discern recent tragedy in the air like a fine grit: something touching on the Stollers’s conspicuously absent son and the enormous military-issue footlocker upstairs, which Russ can’t quite bring himself to haul down. Into this delicate situation pops Karl (Jeremy Shamos), the concerned white citizen from Raisin. Fresh off an attempt to persuade the incoming black family not to buy, he now enjoins the Stollers not to sell. In tow is his wife Betsy (Annie Parisse), deaf from birth and great with child. Francine’s stolid, accommodating husband Albert (Damon Gupton) completes the picture, and soon we’re in purgatory, with a passel of well-meaning whitefolk raucously debating the limits of liberty (vis a vis the superseding priority of property value) as the black folks stand quietly by, biting (through) their tongues. Needless to say, it doesn’t go well. When the curtain rises on Act Two, the same crew is back in different guises: Shamos is now the arriviste, Steve, and Parisse his enlightened wife and yoga-mom-to-be Lindsey (she’s still visibly pregnant). Dickinson and Gupton return as the neighborhood’s new gatekeepers, a relaxed-but-wary pair of buppies named Kevin and Lena. The newcomers have bought the house as a teardown, and the block association questions the architectural harmoniousness of the huge new domicile they’re planning. Brokering the discussions are their lawyer (Kirk) and the local community-group chair (Griffin). Popping in and out is a contractor (Wood), here to dig a koi pond, and he’s unearthed something strange in the backyard: an enormous footlocker.

Needless to say, nothing stays buried. Norris isn’t above certain groaning tropes of armchair-racist indelicacy: breezy sociobiological conjectures about who skis and who doesn’t, the classic “half my friends are black” rallying cry of the cornered white liberal. (Parisse, proceeding brilliantly from physical sensory deprivation in the first act to moral sensory deprivation in the second, sells it for one of the biggest, most rueful laughs of the night.) But for the most part, he’s doggedly original. A brilliantly built gambit about an off-color joke Steve heard (from a black acquaintance, he points out) pays off explosively, especially as carried to term by Shamos, a blisteringly great comic actor. Cards on the table: Shamos is a friend and colleague. He’s also one of the best wielders of uproariously overestimated authority (and equally overcalculated grievance) I’ve ever seen. With support and encouragement from director Pam Mackinnon (perhaps the best field marshal of verbal enfilade and defilade working today), Shamos plumbs the depths of the middle-aged white man’s deepest fantasy: to be an innocent victim of circumstance. His feints at the perceived injustices done him, his retreats into besieged indignation — few actors can strategically self-sabotage, in real time, with such comic dexterity. He crashes majestically, with the reflexes of a fighter pilot, and he’s never better than when tangling with a worthy opponent, supplied by the heartbreakingly great Wood in Act One, the tag team of Gupton and Dickinson in Act Two. If Shamos is the play’s twisted spine (and Wood its wounded soul), Gupton is its secret weapon, with the effects of a life of weary peacemaking and unappreciated, occasionally despised attempts at diplomacy all over his beleaguered face. Dickinson doles out barely suppressed fury in expertly controlled spurts, and if her role is a bit of a type — the Angry Black Woman — she disguises it beautifully. What’s undisguisable: Clybourne is not a 50-50 proposition, but a long, dark night of the white soul, a treatise on guilt, entitlement, and relentless self-justification.

Perhaps no one encapsulates this better than Kirk, who carries the first act as poor, dim, dauntless Bev, so tragically confident in her grasp of matters beyond her rather severe limitations. “But that’s nice, isn’t it, in a way?” she reflects. “To know we all have our place.” Clybourne Park has absolutely secured its place as a fantastic abattoir of middle-class self-regard, a mass joke-letting that’s smart enough to deny us catharsis. Norris ends by conjuring images over which he exerts imperfect control: a wraith from the past, a flashback that overstays its welcome by a few overwritten lines. (Some buried boxes are more powerful unopened, unexplicated.) Clybourne Park may not be a perfect and inviolate marble monument, but on the infinite road to utopia, a solid mile-marker might even be more important.

Clybourne Park is playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre through July 8.

Clybourne Park Is a Mighty Racial Cage Match