My other very-overdue review from Chicago is of Steppenwolf’s impressive production of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park. In a nutshell, Norris’s play is A Raisin in the Sun told from the white perspective. I don’t think that’s how Norris himself would put it, exactly, and I don’t think that’s exactly what he intended. But I think that’s roughly what he achieved, and the play should make audiences – white audiences, in particular – uncomfortable in ways that are rather different from those articulated by the reviews I’ve read.
The play is a diptych. Act I is set in 1959, in the house that the Youngers have purchased in Lorraine Hansberry’s play, as the white owners are packing up to leave for the suburbs. The surface action of Act I is about the effort by Karl Lindner, head of the Clybourne Park Improvement Assocation and the only character to overlap between Clybourne Park and Raisin in the Sun, to convince Russ, the male half of the departing white couple, not to sell to a black family (since, per Hansberry’s plot, he’s already failed to pay the Youngers off not to move in). And there’s a great deal of cringe-inducing dialogue among the white characters (much of it delivered in front of a black maid and her husband) about the need to preserve the “character” of the neighborhood and about how “those” people wouldn’t be happy there anyway.
But this is only what’s happening on the surface. What’s happening below the surface is that, from the perspective of Russ, the most potent character in the whole play, played with subtle authority by John Judd, this “community” that Lindner is trying to preserve is a fraud. Russ has suffered the loss of his son, not in war in Korea (he made it through that conflict intact in body if not in mind), but to suicide when, upon his return, he is unable to reintegrate himself into civilian life. From Russ’s perspective, the “community” turned their back on his son’s suffering, and drove him to suicide; and since his death, the “community” has done nothing to actually support him and his wife in their grief. This is a “community” of self-congratulation, in which happiness is asserted to be collective but suffering is privatized. And he wants no part of it. If his suffering is to be privatized, by God he’ll privatize his happiness as well, and move to the suburbs, and to heck with the “community” he’s leaving behind.
The 1959 set so perfectly evokes the era and the locale, that I actually gasped at the opening of Act II when I saw the ruins of this house, windows knocked out, graffiti scrawled across the walls. (People talk about theatrical effects, but that’s the best kind of effect, when a static set shocks you awake just by being revealed.)
You see, the second half of the play is set fifty years later. In the intervening years, Karl Lindner’s worst fears came to pass: the Youngers apparently did initiate a cycle of decline, with middle-class whites moving out to the suburbs, the neighborhood becoming overwhelmingly black and then predominantly poor. And now, after decades of urban renaissance, Clybourne Park is on the target list for gentrification. The house has been sold to a conventionally liberal white couple, who have come in with their own plans to privatize their happiness: to knock down the house the Youngers bought and build a McManstrosity. And Karl Linder’s modern counterparts – members of the local community organization, including a middle-class black couple armed with rulings about the “historic character” of the neighborhood – aim to stop them.
It was delightful to spot the lines of continuity between each actor’s performance in the first and second acts: Kirsten Fitzgerald’s flibbertygibbet 50s matron becomes a hilariously contemporary flibbertygibbet real estate agent; her powerfully-drawn husband from the first act becomes the genially wry observer of a construction worker in the second, exhuming the chest of secrets that “he” buried fifty years ago. Particularly powerful was the “evolution” of the black couple, played feelingly by Karen Aldridge and with fine economy by James Vincent Meredith, from a maid and her working-class husband to a middle-class couple, from people who have to keep a tight hold on any expression of feeling around the white folks to people who know the rules of decorum but know, also, that the new rules protect them as well, and who are willing to break them when they see their honor at stake. The black characters in both acts have their lives off-stage – this is a white couple’s house in both. But they come off as no less real for that – in Act I, they are overshadowed by the central white drama, but you get glimpses of their own drama happening on some other stage, while in Act II the white characters are so shallow that even their sketchily drawn-in personae seem more real.
The white couple – particularly the husband, played twitchingly by Cliff Chamberlain, the same actor who played Karl Lindner – assert about half-way through the act that the opposition is all about race, after which the discussion descends into an exchange of racist jokes; and, on one level, he’s right: while one could imagine opposition to a wealthy black family with similar architectural ambitions, there’s no way the level of tension in the room would be anything like what it is without the racial element. But on another level, he’s wrong. This isn’t about race, really. It’s about a community. The black couple have a sentimental attachment to place because they have memories of a community that struggled to preserve itself in the face of extraordinary adversity – a collapsing tax base, soaring crime, the crack epidemic. Now that this community has clawed its way back to prosperity, they don’t want to see that happiness privatized.
From the perspective of the Lindners of the world, all that adversity is the fault of the Youngers: if they hadn’t moved in back in 1959, the neighborhood wouldn’t have gone to pot. From the perspective of a contemporary liberal, all that adversity is the fault of the Lindners of the world: if they hadn’t fled when the Youngers moved in, the neighborhood wouldn’t have gone to pot. But to me, this debate is less interesting than the question: what actually makes a community?
Norris’s play is substantially about language, about how we talk about things we aren’t supposed to talk about. In Act I, what we’re not supposed to talk about is private suffering – the black characters can’t talk about almost anything for fear of revealing their own feelings to a white community who don’t want to hear about them, and the white characters can’t talk about the dead boy who lost his soul in Korea, and this silence tears their community apart. In Act II, what we’re not supposed to talk about is whether, in fact, we are members of a single community. “Race” is one way to put it, but nobody in Act II is actually talking about specific racial prejudices, and nobody is actually taking the position that they want to exclude somebody from the community on racial grounds. The language in Act II has been infected by politics, the kind of language you use across communal boundaries; and the descent into crude jokes is an empty sort of catharsis: hate, at least, is a feeling.
What should make us uncomfortable is the realization that, while our highly political language has made it possible for the Youngers to buy a house where they like, it has created new barriers to the formation of a single community, where a good measure of our happiness and our suffering is shared rather than privatized. But, and this should make us even more uncomfortable, that language is probably necessary. Because the easiest way to form a community is in opposition to some other community. That knowledge is what unites the execrable Karl Lindner with the righteous Lena, the black woman who makes the case for the importance of the historic character of the community of Clybourne Park. But of course, playing the game that way is how we – America – got into this mess in the first place.
The play ends by bringing us back to the ghost of the Russ’s dead son. I felt ambivalent about this choice in the theatre. After all, if Karl Lindner and his community had been kinder to the boy, or even to his grieving father, then the Youngers might never have had a chance to buy their house. If the white community had proven itself to be a true community, of shared suffering as well as shared happiness, then they might have successfully resisted racial integration. So what does it mean to bring back his ghost at the end? The hope, I suppose, is that a community that could share that boy’s grief, or even his father’s, could not have closed its doors on the Youngers when they sought to join. Myself, I’m not so sure.