Long Wharf Theatre is closing its season with a very strong production of “Clybourne Park,” the Bruce Norris play about race and gentrification that won the best play Tony for its Broadway production last year and a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2011 based on off Broadway and regional stagings.
The play builds on American theater history by using the 1959 Lorraine Hansberry classic “A Raisin in the Sun” as its jumping off point.
In the first act, set in 1959, Norris reverses Hansberry’s perspective, showing us what caused a family in an all-white Chicago neighborhood to sell their home to the black family that was the subject of the earlier play.
It’s a tense and funny hour in which we learn of the tragedy that hit Russ (Daniel Jenkins) and his wife Bev (Alice Ripley), the lack of support from the “community” around them, and their decision to move closer to Russ’ new job in the suburbs. They are pioneers in the “white flight” that would shift the racial balance in many American cities during the 1960s and 1970s.
We also see the mix of racism and numbers-crunching that sends the neighborhood into a panic — the folks around Russ and Bev see the sale as the first stage in a decline of their community and the value of their homes.
In what sometimes plays like a scathing parody of a 1950s sitcom, the couple’s minister Jim (Jimmy Davis) offers “comfort” that isn’t comforting at all, and an aggressively pleasant neighbor, Karl (Alex Moggridge), takes forever to get to his point — that selling to a black family is a terrible betrayal by Russ and Bev.
Norris has enough good material in the first act for a whole play, but after the intermission we jump forward 50 years to the same neighborhood — which went all black in the 1960s — but is now being infiltrated by young white professionals who want to stay close to their city jobs but have houses that are big enough to start families.
The blacks in the community are as nervous about the changes as the whites were 50 years earlier, and in a brilliant second act climax, the new owners and their professional associates trade stereotypical racist and sexist jokes with a black couple. We see, in the words of that “Avenue Q” song, that everyone is a little bit racist (and sexist and homophobic).
Norris’ play is like a month of op-ed pieces or a year’s worth of Sunday morning TV chat shows on the state of the union’s race relations – except that it’s funnier and smarter.
The structure of “Clybourne Park” is brilliant, but Norris follows through with a series of theatrical flourishes in which the actors who play the 1950s people return in completely different roles when the action moves to 2009. The way the actors are doubled becomes part of the power of the piece — for instance, Melle Powers plays the anxious maid Francine in the first half, but then returns as the confident and unafraid Lena of Act 2.
Long Wharf associate artistic director Eric Ting makes bold choices in his interpretation, so that even if you saw the Broadway production (as I did) there are new aspects of the material explored in this version. Alice Ripley plays the 1950s housewife Bev more straightforwardly than the character was presented in the New York staging, so that the woman’s tragic dilemma becomes even more moving here.
The casting is superb from top to bottom, with the fine actors taking full advantage of the rare opportunity to play two important roles in one play without it ever seeming like a stunt (or a cost-cutting measure).