The second act of Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park is when, I suspect, the audience began to recognize themselves on stage. I know I certainly did, and, as is usually the case with such things, it wasn’t a terribly flattering portrait.
The issue at hand in Act II is that a young white couple has bought an old house in a neighborhood that’s gentrifying. They want to bulldoze the house and build a new, large one. The neighborhood association, represented by a lawyer and a young black couple who grew up in the historic community, has filed a petition against the new owners’ proposed blueprints. Everyone dances around the issues of race and class which are obviously part of everyone’s problem, until finally someone throws them out in the open — or, as much in the open as these topics get in the 21st century.
That’s one of the most powerful, and hardest things that Clybourne Park made me realize. We’re still pretty pathetic when it comes to treating each other as human beings and talking honestly about race. And though that is a relevant question everywhere, since gentrification is a pretty universal problem, it’s especially relevant in Charleston at this moment in time, when development on Upper King is rampant and young, white families are moving in to homes on the Westside and the northern part of the downtown peninsula.
Clybourne Park has one of the biggest sets and largest casts of any production PURE has staged. It’s also one of, if not the, best play they’ve done in recent memory — and that’s saying a lot. It takes place in a single house, with Act 1 set in 1959, when the neighborhood, Clybourne Park, was affluent and white. Act II is set in 2009.
In Act 1, the white owners, Russ (R.W. Smith) and Bev (Erin Wilson) are getting ready to move, having sold their house to the neighborhood’s first black family. Although it’s the neighbors’ (played by David Mandel and Sharon Graci) reaction to the sale that gets much of the action going, that storyline is more or less a thin veneer over the tragic suicide of Russ and Bev’s son. The entire cast, which is made up almost entirely of PURE Core Members, is outstanding, but Smith deserves special recognition — he embraces his role as the grieving, furious father so completely that at certain points he was actually shaking with rage.
Act II gets off to a slower start, as for the first several minutes the characters — the white couple (David Mandel and Sharon Graci, again) and their lawyer (Erin Wilson), and the black couple (Michael Smallwood and Alanda Parker) and their lawyer (Brannen Daugherty) — are running through legal language. But soon the conversation derails, with the lawyers and the white couple going off on tangent after tangent. Each seemingly unrelated conversation reveals more about each person’s motivations and deep-seated opinions, until they’re finally telling racist jokes. That seems to be the only way they can approach the issue, and although it creates some hilarious moments, it’s also pretty darn sad.
The crew has done an excellent job staging this rather complicated play, starting with director Rodney Lee Rogers. Set designer Allen Lyndrup designed a versatile set to portray both an upper-middle-class home and a stripped-down, dilapidated one, and except for a single hiccup during intermission, when the transformation was taking place, everything went swimmingly. Technical director Carly Ridgeway and lighting designer Melanie Wood are also to be congratulated, especially for the striking lighting effect at the very beginning of the play.
Rogers said it best during his comments before the play began: Clybourne Park manages to be both poetic and extremely realistic at the same time, which is a rare combination. The play is also funny as hell, even though it deals with things like suicide, prejudice, and the way political correctness can slide into contempt and condescension. If you only see one play at PURE this season — and there’s only one more after this, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity during Piccolo Spoleto — make this one it.