Clybourne Park: A Dream Still Deferred

If I’d known that the goal of Clybourne Park is to shock us with the politically incorrect statements spewing from its characters’ mouths, I would’ve skipped it. I hoped for more than just shock value from the play, a sort of companion piece to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun. Clybourne Park’s two acts serve as bookends to Hansberry’s story of the Younger family:  the first act, set in 1959, centers on the white family living in the home that the Youngers want to buy, and the second act, set in 2009, is about one of their descendents selling the home to a white couple as the neighborhood gentrifies.  It’s a promising set-up, but, overall, the play lacks emotional resonance.  The characters, especially in the second act, are little more than mouthpieces for racially insensitive and offensively clueless sentiments. While their sentiments may draw shocked laughter from us because we recognize in them thoughts we’re guilty of as well, those sentiments don’t come together to tell us anything unique or insightful about the characters or their relationships with each other.

The first act does manage some emotional depth, thanks mostly to Frank Wood’s performance as Russ, a man who’s at once trying to hold on to happy memories and escape tragic ones as he and his wife prepare to move out of their home. Annie Parisse (Rubicon, Law & Order) also stands out in the first act as Betsy, a woman who is hearing-impaired. I think the best actors are the ones who are always listening to what’s going on around them, so it’s fascinating to watch Ms. Parisse stay connected while playing a woman who cannot actually hear. She’s fully immersed in Betsy’s reality, aware that she’s missing out on some things, but always working to pick up on other cues – body language, facial expressions – to gauge the tense situation around her. Unfortunately, whatever resonance the first act has is almost derailed by Christina Kirk’s performance as Russ’ wife, Bev. I’m not sure what informs her acting choices, but her flailing arms and quavering voice remind me forcefully of Kristin Wiig’s Target Lady from Saturday Night Live.

Clybourne Park shows us that no matter how much social progress we think we’ve made, no matter how enlightened we think we are in our perceptions of others, the same old ugly bigotry still exists just beneath the veneer of political correctness. It would’ve been interesting for the play to go beyond that fact, for it to be a starting point for a new conversation, rather than the play’s only point.

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4 Responses to Clybourne Park: A Dream Still Deferred

  1. Dr. J. Manoranjan Wesley, COL. U.S. Army (Ret) says:

    Indira says:I appreciate the comment regarding the deeply embedded bigotry in our minds; most likely a reflection of the influence of the more primitive portions of our brains-the limbic system?

  2. Wyrd Smythe says:

    I mentioned Carnage. Based on your description, I think it’s different enough to be worth checking out. I think you might like it more than you like this. Carnage is not intended to shock, for one thing. It is an exploration of the true feelings underlying polite feelings, but it’s more subtle and nuanced (and well-performed) than Clybourne Park seems.

    It’s one of those where the entire play (and movie) takes place in real time as a continuous passage of time (no breaks, no jumps). It also involves just four people and one set (technically, there’s an outer hallway and a couple other rooms in the apartment, all used briefly), so it’s either claustrophobic or tight, depending on your perception.

    Given that it stars Christop Waltz, Jodie Foster, John Reilly and Kate Winslet, plus was directed by Roman Polanski, I went with “tight!” And smooth and tasty. It’s really an exploration of how the social veneer breaks down, and for the magic was in the material and the performances.

    • popgoddess says:

      You know, a lot of people obviously liked Clybourne Park a lot more than I did, since it won the Tony for Best Play this year. I’m standing by my opinion, though 🙂 I’ll check out Carnage as well.

      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        It’s possible to wonder if the idea of live theatre hasn’t all but played (pun intended) itself out. Live theatre has been around over 4000 years. Of course, so have books, but live theatre has huge limitations in terms of what you can do.

        A book can take you anywhere in time or space with complete “realism.” The best a play can do is fake it. (With TV and movies, we have a different element of realism: a visual/audible one rather than an imaginative one.) Books, TV and movies can also manipulate time in ways that live theatre can’t.

        Point is, when you’re writing a play, the space you can explore is much more limited than with a book (no limits), a film (almost no limits) or TV (still pretty unlimited—consider the modern Dr. Who). Plays are far more prone to use unusual techniques to compensate; you’re far more prone to see fourth-wall breaking (or related) or abstract storytelling. Our Town is a good (almost canonical) example.

        So [he said, taking forever to get the real point], it’s possible a Tony-winning play might be the least worst offering, or the whole industry may just be tired, worn out or decadent. That “it won a Tony” really means even less to me than “it won an Oscar” and that hasn’t meant anything to me in decades (if ever).

        Your opinion may be right on, and if your description is fair, I have to say it sounds dreadful. Carnage wasn’t, and I’ll be really interested in what you think now that we’ve had this conversation.

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