When I was growing up, my father would teach me rather deep and profound lessons about life. One such lesson concerned “the thin veneer of civility that we wear and how fragile that covering is when threatened with hunger, discomfort, pain or encroachment”. It was from this lesson that a poem emerged from me years later titled, “The Wood Within” that featured the verse:
“What kind of wood
are you made of
when the white dog cowers
and the black dog growls?
Only you have the power
to change what’s
The reason I mention this is because there is an extraordinary play being shown in the Allen Theatre at PlayhouseSquare that reminded me of this life lesson from so long ago. It is the Cleveland Play House production of “Clybourne Park”. While the overall theme is the effect of racism on a community, I felt the deeper underlying theme dealt with that thin veneer of civility.
“Clybourne Park” is actually two plays for the price of one. The first play (or act) is about Bev and Russ, a white couple, who are living the American Dream in Clybourne Park in 1959 West Chicago. At the start it is almost like watching an old “Leave It To Beaver” or “Donna Reed” episode. The wife is a docile “stepfordish” type who quietly maintains the home front while the husband slaves in the mines of downtown Chicago. The men of the neighborhood pride themselves in their intellectual prowess that has been gained by reading “National Geographic”.
Soon, it becomes apparent that all is not right in paradise. Bev and Russ are selling their home. The reason they are selling is beyond the advantage of the reduced commute time for Russ (from 35 minutes down to six and a half). It seems their son (a returning Korean War veteran accused of war crimes) has recently committed suicide in his second floor bedroom and the family is now ostracized by their neighbors.
The problem is, the people lined up to buy the house are black and would be moving into an all white neighborhood. This introduces a variety of characters into the story. There is Jim, the local pastor who is trying to find a peaceful solution to the dilemma. There is Karl, a bigot who heads the “neighborhood committee” (and his very pregnant deaf wife Betsy). Karl has come to talk the couple out of selling to “them”, also involved through no fault of their own are Francine (the couples black domestic) and her husband Albert (who is also black).
Over the course of time, the civility gradually disintegrates in to downright hostility as the protagonists nearly come to blows. Gentle innuendos are quickly replaced with shouted profanity and shoving as neither party is willing to give an inch.
The second play (or act) takes place in the same house fifty years later (2009). A white couple (Lindsay and Steve) who are expecting their first child in November wants to buy the house, tear it down and build an expansive dream home for themselves. They are meeting with Lena and Kevin (a black couple who live in the area and represent the neighborhood’s best interest), Tom (the realtor) and Lindsay (an attorney). The overall argument is over the height of the proposed house in that it will tower over the other houses in the neighborhood, but the underlying problem is that the blacks of the neighborhood are fearful of the whites moving in and forcing up the neighborhood values and forcing the less affluent blacks to leave thus changing once again the racial balance of the neighborhood.
As in the first play, all starts off in a mild sit-commish style as each person tries to out liberal the other. This leads to a series of very bad racist dirty jokes which then disintegrates into a near brawl showing that not a whole lot of racial progress has been made in that neck of the woods.
What makes the work fascinating is that seven of the actors have dual roles in the two plays with each role being polar opposites of each other. Each actor plays off each other to the audience in an effort to convey the themes of the play. The action slowly builds to a dramatic climax in both acts as the actors give it their all and leave nothing on the stage.
The stage itself takes on an amazing transformation between acts. The first act is the living room as the couple is in the process of packing their years of accumulated belongings. There are some great period props sprinkled about to the delight of those who look for such touches. The second act is the same room that has been stripped clean and is ready for demolition. Gone are the fancy wallpapers and intimates. This is a house facing the wrecking ball and dozer.
The work itself is a continuation of the famous play by Lorraine Hansberry titled “A Raisin In The Sun” which chronicled her family’s experience of moving into an all white neighborhood (the court case of which went all the way to the Supreme Court). In the first act the Younger family has agreed to purchase the house while in the second act the great niece of the original family who purchased the house at 406 Clybourne Street is trying to keep the neighborhood just as it is.
One fascinating facts about “Raisin In The Sun” is that it did not win a single award during its initial run although the New York Drama Critics Circle named it the best play of 1959. On the other hand, Clybourne Park garnered the “triple crown” of theater; the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (2011), Broadway’s Tony Award for Best Play (2012) and London’s Olivier Award (2011) for Best New Play.
Prude Alert: There is quite a lot of profanity, dirty jokes, sexual references, shouting and fighting in this work. If you are sensitive to these then you may wish to sit this one out.
Shooting From The Lip (My Last Words): Clybourne Park is the entire theater package. There is a strong double story line that runs parallel to each other, great comedic moments (especially with the facial exchanges between cast members), high drama and a pertinent story line that we can all learn from. This is a great cast that gives its all to the performance. See this show.
Roya Shanks as Bev/Kathy, Remi Sandri as Russ/Dan, Kristern Adele as Francine/Lena, Jim Poulos as Jim/Tom, Daniel Morgan Shelly as Albert/Kevin, Christian Pedersen as Karl/Steve, Jessica Kitchens as Betsy/Linsay and Bernard Bygott as Kenneth.
Laura Kepley, Artistic Director; Kevin Moore, Managing Director; Mark Cuddy, Artistic Director; Tom Parrish, Executive Director; G.W. Mercier, Scenic and Costume designer; Ann G. Wrightson, Lighting Designer; Linday Jones, Sound Designer; John Godbout, Stage Manager; Tome Humes, Assistant Stage Manager Elissa Myers Casting/Paul Fouquet, CSA, Casting, Stephanie Bahnij, Byron Brubaker, Jessica Charlton and Jesse Kasper, Run Crew; and Caitie Martin, Dresser.
April 7, 2014
7:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m.
Noted writer-director Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play responds to his perception that Clybourne Park perpetuates “the connotation… that whites build and blacks destroy.” Join the Clybourne cast for a special reading of this play and TalkBack.
Audiences will want to talk about what they’ve seen in Clybourne Park and CPH will host a TalkBack in the theatre immediately following every performance.
Clybourne Park will take place through April 13, 2014 in the Allen Theatre at PlayhouseSquare. Tickets range in price from $45-$72 each. Students under the age of 25 with a valid ID will be offered a special $15 ticket price. Tickets are also just $25 for anyone under age 35, sponsored by Scene Magazine. To order single tickets you may go online at www.clevelandplayhouse.com, or call (216) 241-6000. Groups of 10+ can save up to 40% off single ticket prices; call 216-400-7027.
About Cleveland Play House
Founded in 1915, Cleveland Play House is America’s first professional regional theatre. Throughout its rich history, Cleveland Play House has remained dedicated to its mission to inspire, stimulate and entertain diverse audiences in Northeast Ohio by producing plays and theatre education programs of the highest professional standards. It has produced more than 100 world and/or American premieres, and over its long history more than 12 million people have attended over 1,300 CPH productions. Cleveland Play House looks toward its centennial while performing in three state-of-the art venues at PlayhouseSquare in downtown Cleveland.
The Ohio Arts Council helped fund Cleveland Play House with state tax dollars to encourage economic growth, educational excellence and cultural enrichment for all Ohioans. We also thank the residents of Cuyahoga County for supporting Cleveland Play House through Cuyahoga Arts & Culture.