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‘CLYBOURNE PARK’…a Pulitzer Prize view of neighborhood integration and gentrification

Roy Berko
(Member:  Cleveland Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association)

Have you ever wondered, after seeing a play, what might have happened to the characters or even the physical structure in which the story is set, before the play began or after it ended?  Bruce Norris’s ‘CLYBOURNE PARK’ does exactly that.

Flash back to 1959, where, at the conclusion of Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A RAISIN THE SUN,’ the black Younger family is about to move into the all-white Clybourne Park area of Chicago.   Before the move, fearing the lowering of housing costs and white flight, the neighbors sent Karl Lindner, a bigoted community leader, to offer the Youngers money for not finalizing the deal.  As it turned out, Lena, the matriarch of the family, refused the offer and the Youngers moved to a house numbered 406.

(Side note:  the story parallels the plight of Hansberry’s family.  In 1937 her father bought a home in Chicago’s segregated Washington Park area.  The restrictive covenants were challenged, resulting in a legal case (Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32).  The Hansberry family won the suit, and lived in the property, which now has National Landmark Preservation status.)

(Enter Norris)   Act 1 of ‘CLYBOURNE PARK’ takes us back to 1959, into the house numbered 406, several days before the Youngers are to move in.  Bev and Russ, the owners of the property, are grief stricken.  Their son, Kenneth, who was accused of war crimes, had committed suicide in his bedroom.  The family, which has been ostracized, decided to sell the house.  We are never sure whether they sold to a black family to get back at their neighbors, or, as they state, were “unaware of the race of the new owners.”   Lindner, the bigoted  character from RAISIN, comes to plead with Bev and Russ to withdraw from the deal. After an emotional confrontation in front of a group of neighbors, the sellers refuse.  (Exit Norris.)

(Re-enter Norris).   The second act of CLYBOURNE PARK takes place in 2009.   The same actors as in Act 1, playing different characters, are present.  There is conflict as to whether the house, in what is now becoming a gentrified community, will be sold, leveled and a new structure built by a white family.  African American Lena and her husband represent the local neighborhood association, and mention that her Great-Aunt moved her family to that house in 1959.  (It is probably not by chance that the young lady has the same name as her Great-Aunt.) Racism enters as the blacks, who have rebuilt the neighborhood, don’t want white suburbanites to buy and change the character of the houses, many of which have been rebuilt to mirror their historical past.

Does the viewer have to know all of the intertwining stories in order to appreciate the Norris play?  No, but it does add a psychological jolt to realize that we are watching the blending of ideas of two great playwrights.  It is also eye-opening to realize that Hansberry, whose ‘RAISIN IN THE SUN’ is considered the seminal black civil rights play, did not win a Pulitzer Prize for her script, but Norris did for his.  One can only wonder if gender and race, subjects of both scripts, was a factor in Hansberry’s denial decision by the Pulitzer committee.

I found the Broadway production of the play fascinating, nicely balancing the powerful message with well developed natural humor.  The Cleveland Play House production is good, but under the direction of Mark Cuddy, there are disconnects.   Some characters are realistic, others developed as caricatures.  The pacing doesn’t build to the emotional climaxes.  The development somewhat sets aside the serious nature of segregation, problems caused by regentrification,  prejudice, and the language of hate.  All of these are in Norris’s writing, but not always strongly present on stage.

Part of the issue may be a lack of clarity as to what type of play this is, which sets the path for the pacing and character development.  In the before-the-play talk the moderator indicated the play was a “farce.”  Farce is defined as, “a light dramatic work in which highly improbable plot situations, and often slapstick element are used for humorous effect.”  If this is the focus which director Mark Cuddy used, I can understand why I found the production somewhat lacking.   The Broadway version was developed as a realistic drama with wickedly comic interludes which came naturally from the language of the play.

Norris, who is an actor as well as a playwright, writes characters that live.   The language and intentions are clear.  The plot is probable.  It could have been happening today in Cleveland’s Tremont, Ohio City or the Forest Hill area of East Cleveland/Cleveland Heights.

All the actors play dual characters.  One in the 1959 era, another in 2009.  This requires the actors to develop two clearly differentiated personages.

Remi Sandri is compelling as the father who is still grieving for his now-dead son.  His inner rage at both the suicide of the boy and the virulent treatment towards his son by the neighbors, is clearly evident.    The writing arch which allows him, as the second act workman, who finds a buried trunk in the backyard, to open a letter found inside, and read aloud the dead son’s suicide note, is heart-wrenchingly developed.

On the other hand, both as his wife and a lawyer, Roya Shanks comes off affected, portraying characters, not real persons.  Which, may be the issue with others in the cast who, I thought didn’t dig deeply enough into the motivations behind the real people they were portraying and, instead, gave the veneer of these people.

Bruce Norris says that his hopeful audience response to the play upon exiting the production is,  “I don’t know what’s right anymore.  I used to think I knew what was right, but I’m not sure I do.”  Hopefully, the audience will grab enough from the CPH production to satisfy Norris’s goal.

Capsule Judgement:  Pulitzer Prize winning ‘CLYBOURNE PARK’ is an emotionally moving and thought-provoking script that effectively highlights the still present distrust between members of different races.  It does that while inserting enough natural humor to keep the audience engaged.  It gets an acceptable, but not spellbinding production at CPH.  It’s a significant play worth seeing.

‘CLYBOURNE PARK’ continues at the Cleveland Play House’s Allen Theatre through April 13, 2014.  For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to