Race to the Bottom: Racial Tensions in a Continually Changing Neighborhood Feed the Fires, and Laughs, in Clybourne Park

It's always fascinating when one or more characters from a famous play show up in another play, such as the witches from The Wizard of Oz who are deftly repackaged in Wicked.

And that's what happens in Clybourne Park, now at the Cleveland Play House. In this thought-provoking construction authored by Bruce Norris, a pivotal character from Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun reappears to ignite a struggle centered on a house that has been a racial battlefield for more than 50 years.

The script is fiendishly clever in many ways, as its double-cast players make the leap from 1959 in the first act to 2009 after the intermission. But there is a major speed bump in the writing that makes the play less impactful than it could be. And while the performances by the CPH players are fine in most respects, a couple missteps interrupt the smooth meshing of these dramatic gears.

At the start, we are plopped into the living room where Russ and Bev are packing up to move from their all-white, middle-class neighborhood. After an extended bit of sitcom byplay built around the names of various cities around the world ("What is the capital of Morocco?"), things turn serious when Karl Lindner (an excellent Christian Pedersen) arrives representing the community organization.

Karl is the same fellow who tried to buy the house from the African-American Younger family in Raisin, to keep them from moving in. And here he is again, trying to work the other side of the street. He plies dour Russ (a solid Remi Sandri) and flighty Bev with his arguments about the prospect of declining property values, but Russ is in no mood to listen. Turns out, he and Bev have recently experienced a major personal loss, and Karl's arguments are falling on deaf ears.

To make that point even clearer, Norris has Karl accompanied by his wife, who is actually deaf. Meanwhile, Russ and Bev's maid, Francine, her boyfriend Albert, and the local minister try to tiptoe through this minefield.

This is a compelling situation Norris has created, and it requires spot-on performances to bring it off—a task Kristen Adele as Francine does especially well. The most difficult role is Bev, since she is both ditzy and insightful, but Roya Shanks makes Bev just a bit too loud and a tad too air-headed, throwing off the balance of the act.

Once the Act 2 curtain lifts a half-century later, it's immediately apparent things have changed. The nicely appointed house has been trashed. A white couple, Steve and Lindsay, just bought the wreck in order to raze it and build their own dream home in this newly gentrifying neighborhood. Now blacks and whites are living together, sort of, but there are tensions aplenty.

All the performers from the first act reappear, in what is an elegant-seeming parallel universe. But in fact, there are a few too many people in this second act confrontation, blunting the force of the interaction. Also, there is a lot of overlapping and interrupted dialogue among the seven people gathered, and director Mark Cuddy doesn't orchestrate these voices smoothly—you can see the dashes and ellipses in the script as you listen, instead of just listening.

The major racial confrontation is built around offensive race-based jokes that these folks decide to share, a decision not rendered all that believably. It's a strange dramatic conceit to fall back on, since there is plenty of real racial tension in the air.

This play has won just about every award in sight and it certainly offers a plethora of laughs, some of the decidedly uneasy variety, along with valid perspectives on race. However, by ending the play on a flashback to the subplot involving Russ and Bev's traumatic event, the play seems to dodge the very real issue it has brought to the fore.

Through April 13 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, clevelandplayhouse.com.

Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.