Review: U-M's Clybourne Park Finds Deep Humor in Our Sad Racial Dance
It's still an awkward dance. When it comes to the subject of race, we seem to invent new language just to avoid the blunt words and ingrained feelings that are simmering just below the surface.
There are few places where that is more true than southeastern Michigan with a long, bloody history of racial animus. Flint and the Detroit school situation are just the most recent examples of the unresolved prejudices that politically correct speech can never hide.
The University of Michigan's School of Music, Theater and Dance couldn't have picked a more relevant and powerful play than Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park. But be warned, anyone expecting a sermon on race relations will find instead a hilariously serious comic drama. This is a play that exposes that awkward dance with sharp wit and a rare ability to understand the real complexity of the issue. The play has won the triple crown of theater awards, the British Olivier, Broadway's Tony, and the Pulitzer Prize and this U-M production is brilliant at making us laugh while unpeeling the many layers of code words that separate us.
406 Clybourne Street is the house in a white Chicago neighborhood that a black family moved into in Lorraine Hansbury's 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. The first act of Norris' play set in 1959 centers on the white couple who have sold this home and are anxious to move out to escape the pain of the death by suicide of their Korean veteran son. The second act takes place in 2009 as an upscale white couple are meeting to discuss plans to modernize the now ravaged home in what has become a low-income black neighborhood.
This is serious stuff. But even in this first act director John Neville-Andrews uses Norris' stylized speech moving at a brisk pace, perfectly capturing the various anxieties at 406 Clybourne. The second act moves at an even faster pace, with more laughs but also more direct confrontation. His cast handles this very precise language skillfully, capturing every nuance of meaning and wringing every bit of the humor that dulls the deeper pain. In addition, each actor in the play has two distinctly different characters. That transformation is awesome.
In Act One, Jack Alberts is Karl, a leader of the community association, who comes to warn Russ and Bev that selling their house to a black family will lead to the end of their tight, white community. Alberts' Karl is a tightly wound, nerdy accountant type. He can't let a bad argument go, he can't let anyone else get a word in to dispute his notion that mixing races is a bad idea. His tight suit and undersized fedora perfectly highlight Alberts' performance. In Act Two, Alberts is Steve, a modern, hip guy, a real urbanite who wants to come back to the city and make it new again. This is where Alberts really nails the character, a slick guy who thinks he's post-racial, until he finds out he's not.
Lila Hood plays Karl's sweet, deaf wife Betsy, a victim of another kind of mindless patronization, and Steve's very modern wife Lindsey, an urban woman who claims at one point "half my friends are black." Again, Hood plays two characters who couldn't be more different and captures the sadness and isolation of Betsy and the whip-smart intelligence and total cluelessness of Lindsey.
David Newman goes from depressed father Russ in Act One, to broad comic punctuation as a construction worker in Act Two. His performance as Russ explodes as he makes a case that not all decisions hinge on the issue of race, even in Chicago. It is a plea for the personal over the social and political. His comic turn is a complete turn around.
Madeline Rouverol is the center point of Act One as Bev, a woman with high anxiety over the death of her son and the increasing depression of her husband. She talks a blue streak, she fidgets, she gushes. And when it comes to relating to her black maid, she displays the easy bigotry that passed/s for liberalism. She thinks she and the maid are friends, how quaint and how sad. In Act Two, Rourverol is a real estate lawyer, Albert and Betsy's daughter, who also thinks she's free of prejudice. Rouverol gets some very funny lines here that she places with pinpoint timing.
And about that maid, Francine. Blair Prince is devastating in this pivotal role. She presents herself as a dutiful employee, even as she is about to lose her job. But she's not one to be pushed around and she disdains Bev's phony liberal overtures (bribes), with looks that would wither a forest. When confronted by Karl to stand in for her race and answer his absurd challenges she dances to avoid and not offend while clearly showing that she is deeply offended. In Act Two, the tables have turned. She is the educated, tart tongued Lena, defending her community against its impending gentrification. It was her family who moved into 406 Clybourne. But here again, she dances around the issue until push comes to shove. Prince shows all of this in her expressive face.
Aaron Huey is Francine's kindhearted husband Albert, who shows that slowly dying deference to whites that makes old movies so uncomfortable. But Huey's Albert also shows his real feelings in his face and when things get a little too insulting he reacts with quick wit. As Lena's husband Kevin, he is a young professional at ease with whites, sharing similar interests, knowing the same people, sharing the same good life in Chicago. But as Act Two goes on, the bonhomie gets thin and then explodes and Huey masters that slow burn.
Jordan Rich plays Jim, a minister in Act One, who tries to straddle two contradictory ideas at once and do it with Christian charity. The temptation to overplay this sanctimony is avoided and Rich makes the character real. In Act Two, he's a building inspector who acts as a referee as the conversation moves from funny to dangerous. He gets one of the night's funniest lines.
The set design by Gary Decker is superb. In Act One, the house is a solid, old Chicago house, real wood trim, plaster walls. It's untidy only because the moving boxes are scattered about. In Act Two, fifty years of increasing poverty and the neglect poverty causes are evident in the home that is also in the early stages of demolition. The change is eye-popping.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
Clybourne Park continues 8 pm Friday and Saturday, Feb. 19-20, and at 2 pm Sunday, Feb. 21, at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater on the central campus of the University of Michigan. Tickets at the League Ticket Office, (734) 764-2538.