Review: Clybourne Park at Arts Club
Humans are tribal creatures. While we may be far removed historically from our more primitive ancestors, at a basic social level, we continue to structure our identity, security, and very lives around the groups we belong to. Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park is a brilliant and Pulitzer Prize-winning play that examines what happens when modern tribes threaten each others territory.
The action unfolds over two acts, which in an exceedingly clever turn of writing, both mirror and echo one another.
In the first act it is 1959 and the residents of 406 Clybourne Street, Chicago have unknowingly sold their home to an African-American couple. Their fellow residents from the entirely white neighborhood arrive and petition the couple to halt the sale, fearing that such a family will introduce irrevocable change to their community.
In act two we jump forward fifty years, where Clybourne Park is an African-American community. In the very same living room, members of the community meet with a white couple who have purchased the home, planning to tear it down and rebuild. Their blueprints call for a structure 15′ taller than any other building in the neighborhood, and there are concerns that this addition will not respect the history and fabric of the community.
Each act is wrought with conflict, bargaining, xenophobia, and the politicking that accompanies real estate and race. It is performed by a powerhouse cast, including local luminaries such as Andrew Wheeler, Marci T. House, Sasa Brown, and Deborah Williams. Each actor takes a turn as a character from 1959 and from 2009, presenting a wonderful opportunity to appreciate the incredible talent and range of these individuals (particularly Wheeler, who switches from Red Forman-esque head of the house to talkative redneck labourer).
Janet Wright’s direction sets a fast, comic pace and intensity, which was greeted with thunderous laughter from audiences at the opening. The trade-off for this however, was that the characters seemed to be in open conflict with one another almost from the beginning in both acts. Rather than setting a slower pace where individuals try to convince and persuade the others to their way of thinking, the lines tend to be accusations almost from the very onset.
It is a stylistic choice, and certainly the audience seemed appreciative of it, but it felt like a layer of nuance and commentary was missed. It would have been wonderful to see the 1950’s cast attempt to keep up appearances and the 2000’s try to remain politically correct for a bit longer. It also would have created a greater opportunity for the hostility and intensity to crescendo to a climax.
In all, Clybourne Park is a moving, challenging, and funny play that has a lot to say about the way people, as social tribes, react to change and difference. Balancing wit, intensity, and performed by a simply stellar cast, the production is a perfect and promising start to the Arts Club’s 49th season.