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Sly and raucous, Clybourne Park makes sharp commentary on race issues

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Clybourne Park

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Written as a sequel of sorts to A Raisin in the Sun, Bruce NorrisClybourne Park mixes rage, hilarity and sorrow to deepen the issues sparked by Raisin, by means of an intriguing, compelling experiment. Beginning in 1959, in the white neighborhood of Karl Lindner, (Clybourne Park) we witness some of the ripples set in motion, once the Youngers refuse a bribe (essentially) to scrap their plans to move into a home of their own, in a less run down, crime ridden, part of town. Karl has decided to pay a visit to Bev and Russ, the couple that is selling their home to the Youngers. In the second act, 50 years later, in the same house, real estate agents of different races meet to resolve certain property issues before returning the sadly vandalized home to the market. The performers from Act I recognizably play different roles in Act II. Perhaps times change, but people themselves, not so much?

In the first act, Karl Lindner calls Russ and Bev from a pay phone to sound the alarm that a “colored family” is buying their home. Karl drives over to explain that they should block the sale, bringing his wife Betsy along with him. Betsy is profoundly hearing impaired (she cannot tell when Russ is cursing her, as long as he waves and smiles at the same time). Karl marginalizes her in various ways, leaving her in the car, ignoring her contributions to the discussion, etc….though after a few minutes of listening to Karl, you might wish you were deaf yourself. Bev and Russ have an African American housekeeper named Francine and she helps them in the process of packing up for moving. Bev keeps insisting that Francine take a silver chafing dish, until her husband Albert puts his foot down, explaining “we have things of our own.”

We gradually learn that Russ is extremely troubled and despondent. A scandal connected to their son’s combat activities has led to his stigmatization and suicide. The visiting minister is having no success getting Russ to open up, and Karl’s thinly veiled racism is not scoring any points with him, either. Norris accomplishes several things in the first act, among them he establishes that : 1. Karl is not very popular in his own “tribe” 2. People can be moved down the ladder of the caste system for various reasons 3. Even well-meaning people (such as Bev) don’t always hear what they need to hear.

In the second act, a convocation of realtors begins professionally and politely enough, juggling intrusive cell phone messages and a handyman who has discovered a footlocker buried in the back yard. Norris mentions different ethnicities and categories of people, whether they are represented on the stage or not. Eventually the proceedings get rather heated, culminating in a spate of intolerant jokes, definitely not shared in the spirit of conviviality. Before Clybourne Park reaches its conclusion we discover the footlocker contains the suicide letter of the soldier son from Act I, whose ghost reads it aloud. Clybourne Park is an odd combination of these poignant moments, outrageous gags that nonetheless reflect the shadow side of our culture, the slapstick of a steamer trunk crashing because a bereaved father can’t or won’t accept help, a deaf wife who is spared the preposterous chaos of the hearing world. What is Norris trying to say, exactly? That we aren’t as evolved as we think we are, or ever hope to be? That we bury the painful truths we desperately need to embrace? That, and much, much more.

The Dallas Theater Center proudly presents Clybourne Park, playing through October 27th, 2013. AT&T Performing Arts Center : Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre. 214-880-0202. 2400 Flora Street, Dallas, TX 75201. DallasTheaterCenter.org.

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