Playwright Bruce Norris specializes in plays that deal with Liberal entitlement, white guilt and scathing humor. These are points to keep in mind with his Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Clybourne Park.” Discomfort and appalling jokes couch the complex specters of racism and real estate, making the experience unsettling at best and confusing as a whole.
It’s ironic that “Clybourne Park,” a re-telling from the white perspective of the landmark “Raisin In The Sun,” a play about a South-Side Chicago African American family moving into a white neighborhood, gets its first Chicago production at Steppenwolf Theater. On a block teeming with glossy privilege, the spectacle of the gentrified Cabrini Green housing projects looms just a few miles away, while Clybourne Avenue, a reference for status and wealth in both plays, is just around the corner. In this loaded environment, the play unfolds with a deceptively meandering pace and an unobtrusive façade.
Opening with Bing Crosby on the radio and an aproned housewife bustling around the beautiful set of a stately brownstone complete with stained glass windows, the cheeriness of 1959 domestic life sets the tone. Bev (an excellent Kirsten Fitzgerald) begins a convoluted discussion with her husband Russ (an impressive John Judd) about the origins of the term Neapolitan and how it can’t possible mean a person from Naples, Italy. It’s a clear commentary on the sense of “otherness” and where one’s place is in the world but it’s a rambling, dragging, 15 minutes that does not set up the play well. We’re soon introduced to Francine, (a masterful Karen Aldridge) the black maid who has an uneasy relationship with Bev’s condescending attempts to bestow her with second hand gifts from her household. The household is being packed up for a move, which stirs controversy on many levels.
Bev and Russ’ son served in the Korean War and came back mentally damaged and the neighborhood responded by ignoring the whole family. So after a horrible incident, they hastily sold the house to a family who happens to be African American. Neighbors arrive to argue against such a travesty and piles of doublespeak, avoidance and righteous judgment ensues. The second act opens in 2009, 50 years later. The neighborhood has changed and is primarily African American but gentrification is slowly increasing. This time, an African American couple, (Aldridge and James Vincent) tackle the changing tide against oblivious white Liberals. “Clybourne Park” is an interesting drama that uncovers issues of racism and entitlement that have yet to be accurately addressed in this city or country. However, its uneven treatment and gratuitous humor do little to clearly examine these re-occurring problems.