Theatre review: Clybourne Park

by **

Dear Dad

Laugh at yourself first, before anyone else can.

                                                                      Elsa Maxwell 1958

This must be Bruce Norris’ mantra when he wrote Clybourne Park, his 2011 Pulitzer-Prize winning theatrical drama. However, the real subject of his self-denigration does not become apparent until the laughter has faded and the theatre is empty.

In Lorraine Hansberry’s momentous 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, a black family is preparing to move into the white district of Clybourne Park in Chicago when an official, acting on behalf of the local community, offers to buy them out — an effort to keep the white neighbourhood from being adulterated by the blacks.

Here, Norris’ first act re-imagines the story of the white vendors of Raisin’s house.

So, it is 1959. Russ (Greg Stone) and Bev (Alison Whyte) are organising themselves for their big move from this white middle-class suburb when they are confronted by the same community’s angry voice. Karl (Patrick Brammall), a local representative, has been despatched to try to pressure Russ and Bev into revoking their sale contract with the property’s purchasers. As the subject of skin colour becomes all the more blatant, the black housekeeper (Zahra Newman) and her husband (Bert LaBonte) find themselves clinging to the last shreds of dignity in an excruciating situation.

In the second act, 50 years on, in the same now dilapidated living room, a white couple, Steve (Brammall) and Lindsey (Laura Gordon), planning to demolish and rebuild the house, is in consultation with lawyers and members of the now black community. Concern has been brewing in the estate about the colossal features of the intended house that the neighbourhood say will violate its heritage.

The thin veneer of pleasant diplomacy is gradually chipped away to expose the raw issue beneath. Tangential small talk finally gives way to an escalating cycle of obnoxious jokes on the taboo matter of race.

Norris weaves his themes like threads in a brilliant tapestry. While we recognise how Tom (Luke Ryan) and Kathy (Whyte) in 2009 have followed the footsteps of their forebears, Ted Driscoll and Karl Lindner, of 50 years ago as representatives of the blacks and whites respectively, one cannot but notice palpable contrasts elsewhere.

Unlike half a century ago, those occupying high social and professional positions are increasingly black in 2009; they are confident and well travelled — never mind that they are now also skiing better than the whites. But more importantly, the territory is today being guarded against the latter and not the former.

Peter Evans directs a stellar cast, each of whom plays two or more roles consistent with Norris’ original design.

While Whyte’s Bev appears to be the voice of reason in a storm of discrimination, her character is arguably cast as the most absurd and disingenuous. To the playwright, she is perhaps like the pretentious progressive of the day, one whose generous and altruistic persona belies her self-serving motivations.

Nevertheless, it is Stone who stands out as the most lustrous performer with a rendition that is memorable in its authenticity. He is immensely moving in his cathartic expressions of loss as the grieving father Russ and remarkably credible in his second act portrayal of the workman Dan — the uncanny image of the housemaid’s husband, Albert, of the earlier act.

Finally, what Norris really wants is to ridicule those of us who pride ourselves on our broad-minded liberalism, to warn of what we say we advocate. For when that liberalism bears fruit and our advocacy is realised, we may be all but prepared for the consequences of marginalisation.

So, as a self-professed ‘hypocritical liberal’, he has chosen to laugh at himself first before anyone else can.