Review: Clybourne Park by University of Texas Theatre & Dance
by Michael Meigs

Clybourne Park was here and then gone, a self-combusting event that deserved a far longer run in this town -- or anywhere else, for that matter.


The UT Department of Theatre and Dance had seized upon plays by Bruce Norris of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre for MFA end-of-term showcase productions at the Lab Theatre.  Norris' 1994 The Pain and the Itch directed by Lee Abraham  played five times in the last week of April in that modest, almost hidden venue behind the Winship Drama Building. The following week six MFA students and an undergraduate directed by Lucien Douglas presented Clybourne Park


They left me speechless.  That night with only three days more in the run, I put them up in the "Now Playing and Recommended" box on the ALTcom front page.  I sent out an ALTcom Tweet saying that Clybourne Park was impossible to overpraise.


I couldn't get a review properly assembled in time to affect possible attendance, so I have taken the time to let simmer the three worlds of Norris's Clybourne Park and the virtuoso rendition of them by UT director Dr. Lucien Douglas and the seven-member cast.


Two weeks before the UT production the Pulitzer Prize for Drama was announced for Clybourne Park. Originally scheduled for a two-week run at the Playwrights Horizons theatre in New York, the production was met with such praise that it was extended to a full month, February 21 - March 21, 2010.  A London production opened at the Royal Court in London last August, then transferred to London's West End.  It closed on the same evening as the UT production, after a run of more than seven months.


UT vocal coach Barney Hammond, who worked with the cast, commented that British audiences seemed to appreciate the language of the play more than American audiences would.  That's probably true, and Norris has crafted a script that's almost a score, two movements for seven actors whose voices strive and tangle with the complexity of extended madrigals written in dissonances and outbursts.


UK audiences may have felt more comfortable with Norris's two acts, set in an imaginary Chicago suburb in 1959 and in 2009, because they themselves were not being targeted.  Norris examines with cynical wit and terrifying humor the changes in our American attitudes toward relations between our diminishing white majority and the African-Americans who share our aspirations and confusions.  In short-hand characterisation you could say that this is a play about American attitudes toward race, but that debases Norris's intent and achievement.


Norris sets his narratives fifty years apart in the mythical-but-very-real neighborhood of Clybourne Park, created in national memory in Lorraine Hansberry's much-admired 1959 success A Raisin in the Sun. In a scarcely disguised transformation of her own family's story, she depicted a middle-class black family, the Youngers, at the decisive moment when they managed to purchase a house in the all-white suburb of Clybourne Park (for the Hansberrys this was the Montgomery Heights subdivision in the Woodlawn neighborhood, immediately south of the University of Chicago).  Hansberry focuses on the dynamics within the family as its members are obliged to rally together to face the opposition of property owners in the destination neighborhood.  A key character is Karl Lindner, the only white person in the cast, who calls on the Youngers twice, first in an awkward effort to dissuade them from moving and at the end with the mistaken expectation that on behalf of the all-white community association he'll be able to purchase the house in order to forestall the move.   In February 2010 Austin had the opportunity to attend a fine production of A Raisin in the Sun, directed by Lisa Jordan at the City Theatre.


Bruce Norris does a double transformation of that situation.  The first act of Clybourne Park is contemporaneous with the action of Hansberry's play and opens in the house already purchased by the Youngers.  They are never named, but Karl Lindner the intermediary is very much present.  We meet the middle aged couple who have sold the place in an effort to escape memories of personal catastrophe.  An African-American housekeeper is present, shortly afterward accompanied by her husband Albert; a fumblingly intrusive clergyman tries to provide personal counseling; Lindner appears with his nearly-deaf pregnant Scandinavian wife.  Nerves are tight as Lindner pushes into the walled-off emotions of the sellers.  Issues of community and of racial/cultural differences are discussed with appalling condescension and misinformation in the presence of the housekeeper and her husband.  Norris captures precisely the assumptions and language of the U.S. before the civil rights campaigns, and he makes us squirm with discomfort at the artificial politeness between the races.  The owner is eventually angered sufficiently to throw the whole lot of them out of the house, adamantly refusing to reconsider the sale.


We learn that in the fifty-year interval between the initial sale and the second act, Clybourne Park just like the Woodlawn region in Chicago was altered by white flight. It became an all-black neighborhood, poverty-stricken and crime-ridden for decades, but eventually and very gradually it began a process of gentrification.  Act two opens with a neighborhood meeting in the same house in 2009 to discuss proposed restrictions on modification of existing structures.  Played by the same cast, the participants are smart, educated and diverse.   They have some links with the 1959 characters -- one woman is the child eventually born to Lindner and his wife; the African-American woman is the niece of the family that purchased the house.  The discussion turns round and round.  The politeness here is an exquisite portrayal of careful American speech in an age of assumed equality and respect for diversity.  It eventually breaks down as the long-time inhabitants fiercely resist the desire of newcomers to carry out a tear-down and McMansion rebuilding of the house.  Norris twists the knife in the wounds, prompting his characters in the guise of openness to reveal their deep distrust of one another's origins.


Norris is looking at racial and cultural differences but he is also examining the concept of the outsider.  We cling to the familiar and we regard with justified suspicion those who may encroach upon it or change our own circumstances.  As Flannery O'Connor wrote, everything that rises must converge -- but that's no indication that convergence will make things easier.  The characters of 2009 scarcely differ in their aspirations or middle-American assumptions, a fact which emphasizes that much more their failure to fight free of stereotypes.


The playwright ties the acts together across fifty years with a melodramatic story of the 1959 catastrophe that prompted sale of the house and the discovery in 2009 of letters explaining what happened.  I found that plot twist a bit too pat and certainly not up to the quality of the live explorations and confrontations in the story.


Clybourne Park is horrible and funny and deadly accurate about the psychological transformation of America.  Cast members are listed only by the first names of the characters, and I haven't retained enough of those to identify the actors with accuracy.  That scarcely matters. One has difficulty in differentiating the voices that blend in a vocal consort, and this performance was like that.  Director Lucien Douglas and Barney Hammond brought these very talented players to a peak.


Of the cast, I specifically cite only Dan Lendzian, who embraced the heedlessness of preservationist intermediary Karl Lindner and the cluelessness of neighborhood intruder Steve.  Each is a horrible individual, completely unaware of his offensiveness.  In this complex and nuanced dramatic construction, each is the fall guy, the scapegoat for the rest of us.



View the program card for Clybourne Park at UT's Lab Theatre


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Clybourne Park
by Bruce Norris
University of Texas Theatre & Dance

May 04 - May 07, 2011
Lab Theatre
Between Jackson Geological Sciences Bldg (JGB) and the Winship Drama Bldg (WIN), near 24th and San Jacinto
University of Texas
Austin, TX, 78712