I wouldn’t have thought that a play about real estate would be something I’d later call “powerful” or “provocative,” but Reno Little Theater’s latest production is both.
In the two days since I saw the opening-night performance of Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’ 2010 Pulitzer- and Tony-award-winning play, I have thought constantly about the issues it raised for me—namely, the nature of community and neighborhood, the assumptions we make about gentrification, and how talk about race (or lack thereof) in today’s “enlightened” society is still a minefield.
Norris has literally taken a page from Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, a drama set in 1959 Chicago about the Youngers, a black family who purchase a new home in an all-white neighborhood, amid fierce resistance.
In Clybourne Park’s first act, we meet Russ (Bob Gabrielli) and Bev (LaRonda Etheridge), the home’s white owners who have, in their attempt to move quickly for personal reasons (which the story later reveals), unwittingly sold to a black family. As they and their black housekeeper, Francine (Andi Tyrell), pack for the impending move, they discover the facts of the sale from an angry neighbor, Karl Lindner (Keith Roberts), the Raisin in the Sun character who is desperate to “protect the integrity” of the neighborhood, and approaches Russ and Bev to beg them to reconsider the sale.
In Act Two, it’s 50 years later, and that same home is the site of further upheaval: the area’s gentrification after years of white flight from the area and subsequent urban decay. Lindsay (Meghan Kirwin) and Steve (Christopher Willson), who are expecting their first child, have purchased the home, hoping to rebuild to accommodate their growing family in this up-and-coming neighborhood. But they’ve met with resistance from the black representatives of the housing board, Lena and Kevin (Tyrell and Idris Ozoya), who resent what these changes represent.
It’s easy to watch Act One and dismiss much of the language of 1959 as racist (“colored” or “Negro”), and Karl’s attitude as backward and ignorant. It’s terrible, but in a way that we’re used to seeing. It’s antiquated, almost charming in its old-fashionedness.
Where things get really uncomfortable is in Act Two, when supposedly sensitive, politically correct discourse reveals its own problems: How the “I-have-friends-who-are-black” way of thinking is laden with racism; how there is a presumption that gentrification is a benefit for all concerned; how just because it’s not socially acceptable to say “colored” or “Negro” or “bitch” doesn’t mean those thoughts aren’t still there.
The same seven actors appear in both acts, with ironic connections between their first- and second-act characters. For instance, Kirwin plays both Betsy—Karl’s deaf, pregnant, ineffectual wife in Act One—and the too-outspoken, pregnant, frustrated wife of another jackass in Act Two. In Act One, Christopher Willson plays Jim, a neighbor and clergyman who struggles in vain to defuse conflicts. In Act Two, he is Steve, the prospective homeowner who says too much of what he thinks. The endless parallels between acts highlight the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The performances are across-the-board excellent. In particular, LaRonda Etheridge proves enormously talented at both subtle gestures and comedic timing, as both Bev and as Kathy, the attorney who proves ineffective in brokering an agreement on the zoning issue. Roberts is so good at being the hateful Karl Lindner that he elicits a visceral response, embodying all we find disgusting about mid-century, white-/male-centric thinking.
Careful attention to details in set design, sound, and blocking, all thanks to the direction of Rod Hearn, aid in making Clybourne Park feel more like a conversation or even a social experiment than a play.
Early in Act One, Bev says, “That’s nice, isn’t it, in a way? To know we all have our place.” I promise, you will leave the theater questioning yourself and your community, and will ponder your own place in this world.