Written by Bruce Norris
Directed by Lee E. Ernst
Where: Thompson Theatre at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When: Sunday, November 13, 2pm
Photo by Paul Cerro / The REP
Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play (and subsequent movie -- the latter of which I have recently seen) A Raisin in the Sun was a thought-provoking examination of African American culture in the late 1950s inhabited by a cast of black actors. In the play/film, matriarch Lena Younger has inherited a $10,000 life insurance policy following the death of her husband and she decides to use this money to move her college-aged daughter, adult son, daughter-in-law, and grandson into a home in the more affluent white neighborhood of Clybourne Park in Chicago. Upon discovering this news, Clybourne Park resident Karl Lindner attempts to buy out Mrs. Younger in an effort to keep racial tensions in his neighborhood to a minimum.
Writer Bruce Norris spins off Hansberry's play in his Clybourne Park taking along with him only the role of Karl Lindner and deciding to look at how the residents of the titular neighborhood react to the possibility of a black family moving onto their street. Taking place in two acts across fifty years, Norris and (in this iteration) the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players explore how race relations have changed for the better or for the worse from Act I's 1959 (taking place concurrently as the events in A Raisin in the Sun) to Act II's 2009.
And things certainly do change in the span of those fifty years in Clybourne Park. In 1959, we meet Bev and Russ (REP members Kathleen Pirkl Tague and Stephen Pelinski), grieving parents whose son died after he returned home from the Korean War. Desperate for a change, Bev and Russ have decided to move out of their home which has recently been sold by their agent. Mere days before their move, however, neighbor Karl Lindner (REP's Michael Gotch) discovers that an African American family has bought Russ and Bev's house which sets off a sea of tension between Karl and everyone else including Russ and Bev's black housekeeper Francine (guest Jasmine Bracey) and her husband Albert (newest REP member Hassan El-Amin).
Cut to 2009 and the landscape of Clybourne Park has changed drastically. We discover that the decidedly white neighborhood of the late 50s/early 60s has drastically changed its racial demographics. The same home once owned by Bev and Russ is now in shambles -- broken down, graffiti'd up, and quite an eyesore. Young white married couple Steve and Lindsey (Gotch and guest Erin Partin) have bought the property and intend to demolish the house and build an upscale, modern home which doesn't sit well with the home's current neighbors Lena and Kevin (the aforementioned Bracey and El-Amin).
Racial tensions, economic issues, and political correctness (or the lack thereof) create an atmosphere of debate -- one that I honestly wish was explored a little further by playwright Norris who thankfully tempers the heaviness of the subject matter by creating a play that is full of laughs from the beginning to the end. These laughs break the nervous tension felt palpably by the audience, but in the end, I felt that some of the racial aspects of the plot were a little too basic to really be biting, particularly in the political landscape in which we live today where simply going on Facebook can be a disturbing experience.
Nearly the entire REP ensemble (as well as the guest actors) take on two roles here and they all create duos of distinct characters despite trying to peripherally connect their Act II roles with their Act I counterparts. The company is well known for its ensemble-driven plays, but Clybourne Park stands out in particular as one in which no one member in the group outshines another -- a true ensemble piece if I've ever seen one. If forced to choose a stand out, Michael Gotch's racially driven characters give him a bit more to sink his teeth into than everyone else, but as mentioned this is really a fantastic group effort.
REP member Lee Ernst directs this piece and he does a nice job in keeping the play moving along at a quick clip, making the most of both Norris's punchlines and dramatic moments -- the latter of which, however, end up feeling just a tiny bit lacking, but that's no fault of the REP. In the end, Clybourne Park feels a little too kitchen-sinky in terms of its myriad of political concepts to really land its emotional core in perfect ten fashion. The final scene, in fact, feels slightly tacked on -- it works, but doesn't resonate quite as I had hoped in part because it deals with an intensely dramatic moment that doesn't really feel explored in great detail throughout the play. Nevertheless, this production is a winner and it continues to prove that the REP's take on modern works is an area in which they truly excel.