A play comparing racist undertones in modern society to those in 1950s America runs the risk of stating the obvious — there is still a major inequality problem in the 21st Century — but Clybourne Park doesn’t take the easy route to that conclusion. Instead, Bruce Norris’ spin-off of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun takes the audience on a scenic drive, skirting the edges of propriety before revealing the ugly truth at the heart of its characters. By concentrating on one house in a transient neighbourhood, Norris investigates the idea of community, how we create and contribute to one, and whether an outsider can ever truly belong, in the space of two mirroring acts.
Emans’ production of Clybourne Park is a thought-provoking and vigorous piece of theatre.
The format relies on flipping the script in Act 2 – not so that the power dynamic is completely reversed, but instead hinting this will be the case before pulling the rug out from under the audience as they begin to realize things have not changed that much in 50 years. While this structure is a clever storytelling device, it does not quite have the shock value Norris may have intended. We are merely waiting for the underlying biases to come to the surface as Act 2 progresses, as they surely must.
Although a fast-paced and witty script, the humour catches various audience segments at different times, leading to more disjointed chuckling than outright, communal laughter in the first act. The pieces come together in Act 2, partially thanks to the fact that, while the outright racism in Act 1 is sickening and uncomfortable to participate in, even as a bystander, the underlying prejudice in Act 2 is easily recognisable to a modern audience. When the only straight, white man in the scene starts to complain about being persecuted while every other character rolled their eyes, it is comforting to feel that we as a society, while nowhere near perfect, are more aware of the differing levels of privilege awarded to people of certain genders, races and sexual preferences.
The staging is simple but effective. The 1959 house feels appropriate for the time, with boxes stacked in that half-hearted manner associated with the days before the official move when we can convince ourselves there’s still plenty of time to get organised. Director Michael Emans choreographs the movements of the ensemble like an elaborate dance number, with characters pacing back and forth, circling each other like tigers, edging away in tricky moments and squaring off as emotions run high. The artistic placements are most notable when one character is pitted against the others, like Francine sitting vulnerably at centre stage during Karl and Jim’s questioning, or the rest of the cast waiting together in various stages of discomfort as Steve reveals his non-PC views from the furthest corner of the room. With so much going on it’s no wonder the team decided to only use music and lighting as transitions, holding back any extras to avoid distracting from the rapid-fire script and enthralling performances.
The cast hits every beat in their interactions with each other – hesitating, interrupting and speaking over one another like instruments in a symphonic movement. The ensemble performances are so dynamic that sparser scenes with only two or three characters feel slightly lacklustre in comparison, despite the emotionally charged undertones. Jack Lord’s transformation from ‘reasonable’ Karl with the neighbourhood’s best interests at heart to ‘sick of PC culture’ Steve was the standout performance of the night. As Karl, he has no hesitation sharing his ‘separate but equal’ mentality while other characters tip-toe around the issue, and his Steve is so subtly infuriating that we didn’t even realise how much we detested the man until he finally got to tell his inappropriate joke and there was a collective groan from the audience.
Emans’ production of Clybourne Park is a thought-provoking and vigorous piece of theatre, with a phenomenal ensemble ideally suited for the material. The kind of performance that leaves the audience wanting more, and keeps the discussion going long after the curtain goes down.