Monday, January 31, 2011

Clybourne Park

(Omozé Idehenre, Gregory Wallace and Richard Thieriot. Photo by Erik Tomasson.)

Last November, I wrote about whether it was a good idea to read other critics’ reviews of a show before writing my own. Friday night, as I walked out of Clybourne Park at ACT, I started to wonder if I should avoid press before seeing the show as well.

Sometimes, you can’t avoid the hype. ACT’s production came to me highly recommended: by other critics, by a professor, and by the fact that the theater had extended the show before it even opened.

The premise seemed great, too: Playwright Bruce Norris bases his work on Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, one of the great American dramas of the twentieth century. In that play, the African-American Younger family seeks to move out of its South Side apartment into a nicer neighborhood of Chicago. In Clybourne Park, which gets its name from that very neighborhood, Norris chronicles the house the Youngers seek to own, at two crucial moments in its history. The first act follows the white family who sells it to the Youngers; the second jumps fifty years ahead, to the present day, when the neighborhood is predominantly black and white gentrifiers want to move in.

The conceit seemed an intelligent way to show the way race and neighborhood relations have changed—and stayed the same—in our country over the past half-century. But in the end, the show disappointed. The parallels between the acts were obvious and cute. The two expositions were long and confusing, full of irrelevant details. And worst of all, the playwright’s portrayal of race was simplified, hackneyed and cowardly. Almost every white character was imperceptive, rude and frankly downright idiotic, both in race relations and the management of his or her own life—and in the second act, without the excuse of 1950s mores. Black characters, by contrast, spoke and acted with common sense and dignity—the only people onstage you could imagine wanting to have a conversation with. But that was part of the trouble: you wanted to have conversations with them because you knew so little about them. As my wise companion put it, they were but shadows “around which the white characters freaked out.”

Clybourne Park makes for a tidy reversal of the way blackness and whiteness used to be performed. Norris trades in Mammy and Sambo stereotypes for caricatures of politically correct bleeding hearts and quietly racist yuppies. And maybe that’s his point: it’s time for white people to confront their parodied selves, as African-Americans have been forced to for so long. That could be, but Norris’ evident fondness for offensive jokes might just preclude any substantive conversation about performativity.

In its simplistic rendering of its central issue, Clybourne Park reminded me of Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig, which played at the Aurora last year. One of LaBute’s characters was a fat woman who had no discernible flaws aside from her weight. I emerged from the show no better at challenging my weight-based prejudices than I was before, as the character I'd spent the past two hours with felt so inhuman. Something similar could be said about Norris’ black characters, who seemed above flaw. Or about his white characters, who seemed mired in it. Either way, despite the production’s great acting, a balance needs to be struck—or I just need to stop having such high expectations.

Clybourne Park continues (Tuesday to Saturday, various times) until Feb. 20 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets ($10 and up), visit

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