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It’s 1959 and the house at 406 Clybourne Street boasts stained wooden columns, vaulted ceilings, three floors, and an attic full of memories. That’s precisely why Russ and Bev are leaving. Haunted by an upstairs incident and their neighbours’ subsequent shunning, the middle-aged, middle-class couple have sold their home to escape northward. The neighborhood association is worried – not because they’ll miss Russ at Rotary or seeing Bev at the grocery store, but because the new tenants are black.
The issues of race and place take up residence in playwright-provocateur Bruce Norris’ newest dramatic comedyClybourne Park, winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize and the Steppenwolf season opener. In Act One of Amy Morton’s deftly staged production, the threat of plunging property values and white flight play out, while Act Two fast forwards 50 years to see the same home, now in a predominantly black neighborhood, being sold to white yuppies as gentrification begins. Two September afternoons, a half-century apart, reveal deep-seeded racism playing out during property negotiations. The play is also quite funny.
Karl Lindner, a man so slick his glasses slide off his face, arrives with his pregnant, deaf wife, to urge Russ not to sell. He’s just come from trying to convince the future tenants, the black Youngers family from Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, to not move into the neighborhood. Lindner is the closest thing Norris offers to a villain. Writing on him and his deaf wife, Norris remarks, “I wanted to make the point that nobody who could hear Karl Lindner would marry him.” But Russ, who can hear, won’t listen to Lindner either. He isn’t fighting for social justice and racial equality, he’s just sending a final fuck-you to the neighbors he once called friends.
“Fuck you” might be a crass way of describing how Norris treats the audiences of his plays. Seeing society as a depraved, dead mass, Norris derives joy from denying spectators a relatable, moral character. “I think art is to society as Christmas ornaments are to a tree,” Norris told the A.V. Club. “They make the tree prettier, but it’s still a dead tree.” This attitude has gotten the former actor work. A Chicagoan of 19 years who now calls Brooklyn home, Norris has had six of his plays originated at Steppenwolf, including last season’s time-bending musing on upper-class discount A Parallelogram. His acting background, which includes stints on Broadway and feature films, heavily influences his writing method. He tells SFGate.com that “writing plays is just an elaborate form of improvisation in which I act out all of the characters in my head and simultaneously transcribe what they say.” The result in Clybourne Park is a carefully crafted collection of fourteen characters, embodied by a talented ensemble of seven performers.
Each actor plays a different character in the two time periods, demonstrating considerable range and creating thought-provoking parallels. Kirsten Fitzgerald transforms from her positive, plump Bev into a self-centered real-estate agent; John Judd switches from his brooding volcano Russ into a soft-spoken contractor; Cliff Chamberlain swaps from his sly Lindner to half of the yuppie pair about to demolish the graffiti-stained property and build their McMansion. These juxtapositions elevate the whole play, making it greater than the sum of the acts. Mundane specifics (“Monday”, “4pm”) are kept constant, as well as profound mantras: “you can’t live in a principle – you live in a house.” In these parallels, Norris suggests that while progress has certainly been made (the black maid and her husband, silent for much of the first act, are upper-class owners of the property after intermission); true integration is still far off. Our contemporary “euphemistic tapdance” around race, as one character calls us, keeps us trapped from addressing deeper issues. But perhaps Norris’ play, a perfectly structured memory of yesterday and stark staging of today, will keep us from reverting back to the tragedies that hang in our attics. Also, maybe we can learn to laugh at ourselves.