By Jessica Bowen
An amazing production, Clybourne Park, opened at Westminster College–directed by Jared Larkin. When the final curtain closed, I sat back in my chair, exhausted. I hadn’t realized until that moment that I had been so tense, but as I looked around the audience, I noticed I wasn’t the only one rolling out my shoulders and laughing self-consciously. Clybourne Park was nothing like I expected it to be, and watching such a skillful performance of so many fraught themes left me feeling rattled, exposed, and—most of all—deeply contemplative. Clybourne Park, written by Bruce Norris and first performed in 2010, has a long list of theatre’s highest honors, including a Pulitzer, a Tony, a Jeff, and an Olivier, and yet few people I talked to had ever heard of it before. I certainly hadn’t, and I was surprised to learn that it was written as a spin-off of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, though it easily holds its own as a standalone work.
Clybourne Park tells the story of one house, situated in a neighborhood whose residents are constantly engaged in a (mostly) polite social war over their community’s identity. Act 1 begins in 1959, as Bev (Sierra DuCharme-Hansen) and her husband Russ (Steve Allyn) are in the middle of moving out of the house. In their haste to escape the rut their lives have fallen into since a family tragedy, Bev and Russ give their real estate agent free rein, and he sells the house to a black family. The community, represented by Karl (Aidan Croft) and his deaf, pregnant wife Betsy (Sydney Shoell), are not pleased by the news, and the rest of Act 1 consists of an increasingly heated argument between the two couples about the future of the neighborhood. It is clear from early in this act that Clybourne Park is best for teenagers and adults, due to some strong, spirited language. Their disagreement eventually pulls every character onstage into its orbit, including Bev’s black housekeeper Francine (Taylor Wallace), Francine’s good-natured husband Albert (Tristan B. Johnson), and Jim, the local preacher (Jaiden Castleton). When the cacophony ends, everyone has spoken, but no one is satisfied.
In Act 2, we are transported 50 years into the future, where the same actors stand in the same living room, but play a different set of characters. In 2009, it seems, the residents of the neighborhood are nearly all black, and the problem now is that a young white couple (Shoell and Croft) have bought the house—which is now in serious disrepair—with plans to demolish it and build something bigger. The community is, once again, displeased, and a black couple from the neighborhood housing board (Wallace and Johnson) bring their concerns about the destruction of part of the neighborhood’s historic past as well as the size of the intended house, which exceeds the zoning regulations the other neighbors follow. However, underneath the ostensible conversation about frontages, easements, and whether or not the sidewalk counts as part of the property, the same anxieties about race fester, and inevitably, an argument breaks out, a heart-wrenching echo of the one we just witnessed, way back in 1959.
If you’re uncomfortable with knowing so much of the plot before seeing the show, I assure you, I haven’t spoiled anything. The power of this show comes less from the plot points and more from the way these actors use every line to tug the audience deeper and deeper into the unspoken fears, assumptions, and uncertainties we all have about people who are different from us. I’ve heard several people talk about the satire involved in this play, but be warned: This is a different kind of satire entirely. The satire of Clybourne Park is not the cutting, late-night talk show satire that many of us enjoy—it’s not about witty political barbs that sting a little but still make us laugh. No, the satire of Clybourne Park is not sharp—it’s blunt and relentless. Anyone who’s ever had a fraught conversation about race or gender or sexuality will recognize their friends (and themselves) in this performance, and that is as humbling as it is brilliant.
The cast, with this truly incredible task of emotional translation before them, delivered an exceptional, balanced performance. At the beginning of Act 1, the energy of the performance seemed low, but after a somewhat sluggish start, it built in a perfect arc, increasing constantly but imperceptibly until, as I mentioned at first, they had us riveted to our seats. Aidan Croft (Karl/Steve) deserves a special shout-out for delivering a few of the most squirm-inducing and aggravating rants so convincingly, as do Sydney Shoell (as Lindsay) and Sierra Ducharme-Hansen (as Bev) for walking the tightrope between assertiveness and peacemaking so adeptly.
The set (designed by Nina Vought) was perfect in its vacancy. The house is the audience’s primary link between past and present, and it’s a stand-in for the rest of the neighborhood, and yet its shelves and walls are always drearily empty. In the absence of homey touches and the comforting detritus of regular, happy life, the whole set is literally and figuratively just an echo chamber for the people who walk its floors. The sound and lighting design (Sam Allen and Spencer Brown, respectively) amplify these effects well through subtle and sporadic appearances that accent and never distract from the verbal conflict that drives the show.
Neither the text nor the performance leave us with any clear answers to the difficult questions this play raises. That ambiguity is the heart of the play’s power and it’s also the reason that I highly recommend seeing this show if you have the chance.
We’re all aware that there are many social and political rifts that divide our communities, our families, and our friends, and we’ve all felt powerless to find the right words to say or the right questions to ask. We’ve all had moments of opportunity turn into moments of divisiveness in conversations about the things that make us different from one another. This show won’t fix those things, but it does validate that struggle.
In every element of its production, Clybourne Park at Westminster College offers a thought-provoking, probing, and engaging exploration of how we interact with difference that will stay with you long after you leave the theatre.
Westminster College Theatre Presents Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
Westminster College, Jay W. Lees Courage Theatre, 1700 South 1300 East, Salt Lake City, UT 84105
November 9–11, 16–18 7:30 PM
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