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Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris at Park Theatre

Triple-laureled a decade ago with a Pulitzer, Olivier and Tony, Oliver Kaderbhai’s revival of Bruce Norris’ 2010 drama about territory, race and gentrification offers some fine performances and dramatic moments but, depressingly, doesn’t illuminate much beyond pointing out that entitled white people don’t much empathise or listen to others – even when given a long time.

Eric Underwood and Aliyah Odoffin in Clybourne Park / Photo by Mark Douet
Eric Underwood and Aliyah Odoffin in Clybourne Park / Photo by Mark Douet

The play’s first act opens with a doll’s house downlit with a single shaft of light. Alex Lewer’s lighting design is rich and tells us we’re going to encounter a high production value show. Our eyes and thoughts are focused on how the very idea of a home can be totemic to the point of fetish. The model is then dismantled and removed before the lights come up to reveal a spacious and comfortable living room of a two-story house rendered with detail and skill by set designer James Turner. Rear projections of successive American presidencies starting with William Taft (1909 – 1913) and concluding with Dwight D Eisenhower (1953 – 1961) inform us we’re in mid-twentieth-century America. The play’s title indicates we are in the same fictional Chicago neighbourhood of Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal 1959 housing segregation drama A Raisin in the Sun – although, unfortunately, the approximate and varied accents across the cast could place us anywhere from Mississippi to Brooklyn.

There are some plays for which it is better to go in blind, but Clybourne Park absolutely relies on its reference to A Raisin in the Sun for context. Strangely this production’s programme doesn’t mention anything at all about Hansberry (one of the most pioneering and genius playwrights of the 20th century who broke down multiple barriers as a woman of colour) or her storied work. It does, however, include a very chatty interview with white, straight, male playwright Bruce Norris who could not have written this play were it not for Hansberry – even if the entire pamphlet neglects to mention her. Given the play’s comedy about identity politics, I did wonder if this omission was a kind of in-joke?

If you don’t know in advance that Clybourne Park is intended as a sort of speculative prequel (Act One) and sequel (Act Two) to A Raisin in the Sun, you’d be forgiven for thinking its first act is a poor man’s Arthur Miller with lots of casual racism. If you do know that Norris’ work is intended to bookend Hansberry’s, there is still a problem with Act One. Via the household of Bev (Imogen Stubbs) and Russ (Richard Lintern), we are introduced to a series of unappealing white people – several of whom are little more than stock characters (such as the jovial but craven segregationist pastor Jim [Michael Fox] and obnoxious Rotarian Karl [Andrew Langtree]). Unlike Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, we aren’t given quite enough unsettling, cringey theatricality to make us wonder if we are in a dystopian farce. Kaderbhai doesn’t manage to delineate clearly enough between a typical 20th-century dramatic naturalism and a more deliberately mannered style that should make us feel awkward. Likewise, the characters’ general lack of self-awareness provides comic fodder and frustration but, as the penny never really drops for anyone, we remain in the same place. Without change, is this drama? Without the release of tension, is this comedy?

After the interval, the presidency projections fast-forward us to the Obama administration and we discover the rooflines of Act One’s house as a gentrification project in a demographically transformed neighbourhood. The same cast play different characters at a homeowners’ association meeting trying to negotiate zoning regulations with the city and each other. In this act, the director has found a more consistent tone: fast-paced and biting. Whilst all the white characters still engage in different expressions of entitlement with little or no self-awareness, we witness consequences and conflict as a result. Norris’ once-controversial exploration of identity politics and the unsayable, reveals itself as a never-ending loop in which no meaningful dialogue can be achieved and the personal traumas of humans are secondary to territorialism. Thus, we arrive at the rather disheartening moral to this tale; a point deepened when you consider events and attitudes since the play’s writing and the present day.

Clybourne Park treats us to some fine performances across the board but particularly by Richard Lintern as Russ in the first act and Eric Underwood as Kevin in the second act. The production, despite some flaws and inconsistencies, is strong and thought-provoking but I rather wonder if Norris’ play is anywhere near as important theatrically as it seems to think itself.

3 Star Review

Review by Mary Beer

In 1959, Russ and Bev are moving to the suburbs after the tragic death of their son and have sold their house to the neighbourhood’s first black family.

Decades later, the roles are reversed when a young white couple buys the lot in what is now a predominantly black neighbourhood, signalling a new wave of gentrification. In both instances, a community showdown takes place – are the same issues festering beneath the floorboards fifty years on?

Directed by Oliver Kaderbhai, this outrageous comedy has never been more relevant more than a decade after it first played in London.

Trish Wadley Productions and David Adkin in association with Park Theatre present
Clybourne Park
By Bruce Norris
Directed by Oliver Kaderbhai

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  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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