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'Clybourne Park' at KC's Unicorn confronts obscure racism across decades

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Clybourne Park

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Racism--pure, but certainly not simple, sums up the newest production, Clybourne Park, now showing at Kansas City’s Unicorn Theatre. Clybourne Park starts quietly, until it builds to a crescendo and the gloves come off for a battle royale, complete with many huge laughs.

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In the 1970s, Americans learned to laugh at the bigotry of Archie Bunker from All in the Family. His prejudices touched all colors other than the WASPISH society he knew. Through producer Norman Lear’s eyes, Americans learned to laugh and learn from Archie and Edith in short, small doses. Now, Clybourne Park goes further than Archie ever uttered.

Clybourne Park begins in 1959 at a time when block-busting struck fear in the minds and pocket books of white suburbanites. They feared the prospect of people of color moving in their neighborhoods, and once the first house sold, property values dropped and whites fled to the outer limits of suburbia to escape their fate. Clybourne Park confronts this issue, calmly at first and builds to almost fisticuffs at the end of Act I. The ugly side of racism rears its ugly face.

Even though the subject is strong and many times offensive, the humor built within the script takes the audience on a thrill-ride roller coaster as two opposing forces tear off layer upon layer of niceties as deeper and deeper fear, anger, and unrest simmer to an angry boil.

Two of Kansas City’s most established actors, David Fritts and Brian Paulette get a stranglehold on their characters and feed off each other’s chemistry as the first act delivers countless laughs. The laughs come from not only the dialogue but also from the facial expressions, body language, and volatile language. Fritt’s and Paulette’s acting are nothing short of genius.

To provide more depth to the story, the two spouses, Jennifer Mays and Jessalyn Kincaid provide really strong supporting characters. Kincaid as a deaf, pregnant spouse is thoroughly funny in a blonde wig as she can only respond to visual actions. She has no idea of the volatility of the situation. Mays portrays the troubled spouse, packing the house for the impending move to hopefully gain a fresh start for herself and her husband after a traumatic event two years prior. Her desperation to save herself, her marriage, and husband gives substance to the show. Both women give strong, sound performances.

Three other characters bring the comedy and drama to greater heights as well. Michael Pauley as a Catholic priest comes to solve and soothe the inner turmoil of the house sellers. Mykel Hill and Janae Mitchell give solid performances as a housekeeper and spouse, accidentally drawn into the argument while trying to make their exit.

Director Joseph Price assembled some super-talented actors to give the high-energy and extremely dark comedy the edge it needs. Everyone sees a part of himself in at least one of the characters or situations. And, for those who did not live in that time, rest assured you know someone who did and can identify with the story lines.

The Unicorn’s award-winning series brings another hit comedy, Clybourne Park, by Bruce Norris, and co-produced with UMKC Theatre to Kansas City theatergoers. For background, Clybourne Park, won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play, the Pulitzer Prize and Olivier Award for Best New Play.

“The play, in two acts, brings new meaning to the term ‘house-flipping.’ Act One is 1959 as community leaders try to stop the sale of a home, in Chicago’s historic Clybourne Park, to a black family. Act Two is present day, in the same home, as the now predominantly African-American neighborhood battles to hold its ground in the face of gentrification,” a spokesman for The Unicorn said.

After Act I and intermission, the warmth and hominess of Act II jump 50 years or more ahead to present times and a reversal of roles. And, yes, the ugliness of racism still exists in Clybourne Park, but from a different perspective. In Act II, new characters come to the forefront, although the same actors create entirely new personas.

Laughs and hidden racism, again, go handily together in a new, blended society, that still faces the same obstacles as before. A far more modern society never settled or evolved far beyond past differences on racism. But, rest assured, the anger and laughs push the bounds. Bigger, broader laughs come from as hidden agenda, ignorance, and out-of-date perceptions spew from the mouths of characters. Hang onto your seats, Act II brings the audience face to face with situations they do not expect.

Expect amusement and amazement as the ensemble takes you to extremes. Then, quietly smile as you recognize yourself, your friends, your family, and your acquaintances in these situations. Uncomfortable as they are, the themes presented in Clybourne Park strike uncomfortable too close to home for many. Laugh and enjoy the ride. Clybourne Park is astounding and highly recommended.

Comprising the cast for Clybourne Park are: David Fritts as Russ/Dan; Jennifer Mays as Bev/Kathy; Mykel Hill as Albert/Kevin; Janae Mitchell as Francine/Lena; Brian Paulette as Karl/Steve; Jessalyn Kincaid as Betsy/Lindsey; and Michael Pauley as Jim/Tom/Kenneth.

Clybourne Park runs through Dec. 29 at Kansas City’s Unicorn Theatre. For information, tickets, showtimes, etc: unicorntheatre.org

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