Dallas — Bruce Norris' Tony/Pulitzer-winning play Clybourne Park centers on the house in the eponymous all-white neighborhood made famous by A Raisin in the Sun.
Though Dallas Theater Center invites comparison between the two plays by running them in repertory, their production of Clybourne Park directed by Joel Ferrell is, in itself, a tale of two tales separated by an intermission; one far, far better.
The first act dovetails with Lorraine Hansberry's famous play in time and plot. It's a peek into what is happening in the house the Youngers intend to inhabit. In the second act, playwright Norris places the same cast playing different characters in the house as it has become 50 years later.
Unfortunately, what the house loses in property value parallels it's dramatic potential. It's not a total loss. You'll laugh more, but you'll learn less.
Before even the beginning, Russ (Chamblee Ferguson) sits determinedly amongst half-packed boxes with his National Geographic and Neapolitan ice cream. His wife, Bev (Sally Nystuen Vahle), tries to affect some movement, physical or emotional, out of her husband, but only in the confines of a proper 50's housewife. It's a little like watching Atticus Finch being assailed by Gracie Allen.
Their relationship provides ballast for the first act giving gravitas to an otherwise comedic treatment the unfinished plot point of A Raisin in the Sun: how the Youngers afforded a house in this neighborhood. As awkward attempts of the neighbors get more comedic, Ferguson and Vahle make it clear that there's something heavier going on.
Vahle creates a flute-voiced Bev, clinging canary-like to manners that no longer matter. Ferguson keeps Russ resolute in his right to private grief but he never loses sight of the thread connecting Russ to Bev. It's this awareness that mixes a little hope in the midst of all the heft.
What starts out as a visit from Pastor Jim (Jacob Stewart) grows into an intervention with the maid, Francine (Tiffany Hobbs, who also plays Beneatha in the production of Raisin) and her husband, Albert (Hassan El-Amin) as unwilling participants. When Karl Lindner (Steven Michael Walters) enters straight from the pages and plot of Raisin and delivers the news that the house has been sold to a black family, playwright Norris has to give him a little deaf and a lot pregnant wife, Betsy (Allison Pistorius) in order to keep the comedic from going caustic.
Steven Michael Walters' Karl is less balanced here than in Raisin, letting loose with his passionate warning of what will happen if “they” move in. Pistorius mixes equal parts daffiness and deafness in Betsy, his wife, in order to look on his vitriol with deer-in-headlights love. The maid, Francine (Tiffany Hobbs) and her husband, Albert (Hassan El-Amin) take the awkward stupidity with as much restraint as politely possible until they are forced to enter the fray.
Director Ferrell, who manages large musicals easily, has his hands full with all of these pent-up pasts. That the choral ode turns cacophonous at times may be beyond his power. Or, it may be just what the playwright intended so that when the din is done, the silence is all the sweeter. The first act ends like Raisin—for Russ and Bev there's hope in leaving.
We all want to belong. Everyone's looking for a reason to be a part instead of apart. A group develops into a community forming culture out of what it has in common. The culture becomes valuable in direct proportion to the value of membership in the community. Karl doesn't understand this.
He only sees skin color as the identifier of the community and fights to keep that whole. Russ makes it clear that something greater was broken long before. Having spoken it finally, he opens the door to finding a new unity with his wife. Somewhere else.
Second act, same as the first, only this time a little bit worse.
The house is trashed. Set designer Bob Lavalle destroys his first act Arts and Crafts creation. The lovely quarter sawn oak door is ripped off and replaced. Walls are distressed with graffiti, exposed lathe and wallpaper. Time has been here. Fifty years of it. Lighting designer Seth Reiser leaves the lights with mostly the same even sit com wash accented now by construction work lights.
Sound Designer John Flores adds to the grit by blaring Naughty By Nature's “O.P.P.” Whether signaling that the young white couple are moving into Other People's Property by moving into the now black neighborhood or just choosing this rap song because it was a crossover hit (read: became popular with a white audience), it's a most def choice.
The house is blight-ripened and ready for gentrification. Assembled amongst the dereliction are the parties of varying interest: the new owners, Steve and Lindsey (Walters and Pistorius), the agent, Kathy (Vahle), the lawyer, Tom (Stewart), and the representatives of the neighborhood, Lena and Kevin (Hobbs and El-Amin). It's to be a meeting for going over a covenant governing the renovation of the home. It starts as riveting as it sounds.
Awkward niceties and small talk give way to awkward legal language in the covenant that gives way to awkward interruptions from cell phones and workmen. Before issues of race get the gloves to come off, it's already a fumbling mass of non-communication. It follows a similar arc, from civility to hostility, as the first act, and there are some clever connections. There're more laughs here, too. But on the whole it's act one, light. Tastes great and it's less filling.
For all the invective of the second act, no one has real investment in the house.
Where its price in the first act reflects how the community failed a person. In the second act, it just represents how the community failed. Playwright Norris is dangerously close to endorsing Karl's prediction.
Though neighborhood representative, Lena (Hobbs) gets a chance to speak on its behalf, she can only pull for what it once was. The young couple, like the Youngers, hope to make a move up by moving in, but their interest isn't in the building, it's in building. When they turn on each other, no one is left for the audience to root for.
What's left is a lot of finger-pointing, name-calling and tasteless jokes. Playwright Norris has to resort to a sort of deus ex machina ending in order to regain some significance. It's stirring.
But that just makes it murkier.
» Read our review of A Raisin in the Sun, directed by Tre Garrett, here
» You can see both productions in one day, on Saturday, Oct. 19; and on each day of the final weekend for this run, Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 26 and 27
» An interesting side note: As part of the PBS Fall Arts Festival, there will be an airing of "A Raisin in the Sun Revisited: The Raisin Cycle from Center Stage" at 8 p.m., Oct. 25 (it will air here on KERA/Channel 13), a documentary about Hansberry's play and footage of rehearsals at Baltimore's Center Stage of two plays that react to Raisin: Clybourne Park and Kwame Kwei-Armah's Beneatha's Place, which imagines Beneatha and Joseph's trip to Nigeria. More on that here.