Claybourne Park has taken a long road to Broadway since premiering in 2010 off-Broadway at Playwright’s Horizon. It has been well worth the wait. Since leaving New York, the show was won the Olivier Award for Best New Play in London and a Pulitzer Prize, which naturally raises expectations. This is a show that meets all those expectations and more.
Shows which deal with race and race relations have to walk a delicate line between engaging an audience without offending them. Claybourne Park maneuvers this territory expertly without pulling punches or lessening the issues we all face.
They show takes place in 1959 in Act 1 and in the present in Act 2. In both acts, the same house in the Claybourne Park neighborhood of Chicago is being purchased by outsiders. In 1959, the first black family is moving into the white suburb. In Act 2, gentrification by white yuppies is overtaking the now African American neighborhood. Bruce Norris, the playwright, explores the limits of language to underscore our difficulties in discussing race. These people are all smart, well-spoken and have good intentions, but still can’t go five minutes without offending each other.
|Frank Wood, Damon Gupton & Crystal Dickson|
A trio of amazing performances in Claybourne Park
But this show isn’t just about race, it also investigates the meaning of community and belonging. It manages to be both funny and intelligent, while also being a bit uncomfortable. Many of these characters, their assumptions, and their comments will hit close to home. We all have friends or families who have said something that makes us cringe. No matter how cautious we are our conversations about race and neighborhoods are complicated and prickly.
In Act 1, the unseen black family is moving into the neighborhood for a better life. Russ and Bev are in the process of moving, helped by the maid, Francine. They are visited by the local minister, Jim, and self-appointed block savior, Karl. Tempers begin to rise, as Jim tries to get Russ to talk about his emotional issues. Emotions boil over when Karl confronts Russ about the sale of the house to a black family. A major reason Russ is moving is because he feels ostracized by the community. Jim and Karl’s pleas to keep the neighborhood white offend Russ. All of this plays out in front of the maid, Francine, and her husband Albert. Francine just wants to get out of the house, but Albert is a little trapped by an offer to help Bev with some moving. Karl’s questioning of Francine and Albert as surrogates for all black people is both misguided and offensive, particularly to contemporary sensibilities.
In Act 2, contemporary sensibilities are assuaged, but the language is just as tortured. In the present day a yuppie couple, Steve and Lindsey, navigate the process of buying and upgrading the same house fifty years later. They are working within community association where both sides have lawyers, hammering out the rules for upgrading the home. Just as the community of whites in 1959 worried about the new black residents, the African American residents of 2009 worry what gentrification will do to their neighborhood.
The acting is amazing. The original off-Broadway cast is back and their portrayals are dead-on, without ever seeming stale. Each one is exceptional in this piece; bringing the disparate parts into a cohesive whole. In particular Crystal Dickson, as Francine / Lena, smolders on stage – a slow steady burn of anger that is betrayed only by being contained. She is amazing even within this group of excellent actors.
|Bredan Griffith, Frank Wood, Jeremy Shamos, Annie Parisse & Christina Kirk on moving day|
Director Pam MacKinnon brings this story to life organically. Despite the difficult topics, this show doesn’t feel false or forced. Claybourne Park does what a play does best; it entertains your thoroughly, raises questions about your own life, and stays with you long after you leave the theater.
Playwright: Bruce Norris
Director: Pam McKinnon
Cast: Crystal Dickson, Brendan Griffith, Damon Gupton, Christina Kirk, Annie, Parisse, Jeremy Shamos, Frank Wood