“Clybourne Park,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play at the Walter Kerr Theatre, takes a clear-eyed look at racism and what could have happened with the characters before and after “A Raisin the Sun.”
It’s an interesting premise and one that had some of the audience on its feet. Set in 1959 and 2009, the play examines a neighborhood’s changes because of racism. Naturally, though, the ignorance and miscommunication that fuel racism doesn’t change.
Seven actors play different characters in each era and show that while some strides have been made, basic distrust continues to fester. The entire play is set in the living room of a house a few minutes outside of downtown Chicago.
In the opening, middle-aged, white couple Bev and Russ (Christina Kirk, Broadway’s “Well,” TV’s “The Good Wife,” and Frank Wood, Broadway’s “Side Man,” TV’s “The Sopranos”) are moving. Boxes are scattered throughout the living room.
Decades of marriage have left them comfortable but perpetually annoyed with each other. Their black maid, Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson), helps Bev pack.
Pretty soon, their pastor, Jim (Brendan Griffin), joins them and tries to get Russ to talk about his pain. That’s a mistake, as Russ has no problem telling him in fairly blunt terms to mind his own business. Francine’s husband, Albert (Damon Gupton), has arrived to drive Francine home. The living room becomes more crowded when two white neighbors, Karl and Betsy (Jeremy Shamos, Annie Parisse, “Law & Order”), stop by, even though Russ told them not to.
Enraged that Bev and Russ sold their house to a black family, Karl made a counter-offer. His blatant racism, which he has no compunction boasting about in front of the black couple, is that the neighborhood property values will go down if a black family moves in.
“You know as well as I do this is a progressive community,” Karl announces, citing Gelman’s Grocery, owned by a Jewish man.
Karl’s stance is offensive, ugly and blatant and he won’t give up, which just ticks off Russ more. Karl’s wife, for no obvious reason other than the symbolism, is deaf and pregnant. Parisse does a very good job of sounding like someone who has never clearly heard speech. Without shame, Karl drags Albert and Francine into his argument, saying how all groups want to live among their own.
Though Francine manages to stay diplomatic – she just wants to get through her last few days of work and flee that stifling living room – Albert can’t stand listening to the nonsense. He does an Uncle Tom voice when Karl eggs him on about how Gelman’s market wouldn’t even carry what blacks want to eat.
“I sho couldn’t shop nowhere they didn’t carry pigs’ feet,” Albert says.
During this painful argument, we learn that Bev and Russ’ son, a Korean War vet, hanged himself in this house. They need to move.
The second act opens 50 years later, in the same living room, where the walls are marred with graffiti and the house has fallen into disrepair. The same actors are now playing modern characters.
The younger white couple, Steve and Lindsey (Parisse is pregnant again), bought this house in a black neighborhood undergoing gentrification. They plan to tear it down and build a much larger house in its place. Their lawyer, Kathy (Kirk), was born in the neighborhood, but her parents soon moved away. Her parents were Russ and Bev.
The black couple, who have lived in the neighborhood for years, also have a connection to this house. Lena’s (Dickinson) great aunt was the woman who had bought it for her family.
Everyone’s cell phones go off and conversations are started and interrupted, but as would be expected, the conversation devolves. Shamos is still playing a jerk as Steve, but he thinks he is only being honest. He makes the fatal error of telling a racist joke, saying it can’t be racist because a black man told it to him. It’s more stupid than anything else, but that paves the way for other jokes, all pointed and racist, which gets everyone angrier.