Play provides social commentary on race

Clybourne Park, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for drama, will head to Broadway April 19, but not before finishing its superb run at the Mark Taper Forum.

Societal critique · Jeremy Shamos (left), Annie Parisse (center) and Brendan Griffin (right) offer exceptional performances in Clybourne Park, the follow-up play to A Raisin in the Sun, which confronts racism in the 1950s. - Photo courtesy of Center Theatre

In response to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the first scene of playwright Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park brings audiences into the living room of one of the most famous homes in American theater.

In A Raisin in the Sun, the Youngers, a black family in the 1950s, argues over how to use an insurance check after the patriarch of the family dies. Lena Younger, the matriarch, decides to use the money to buy the home she and her husband always wanted.

The house, however, resides in Clybourne Park, an affluent white neighborhood. And Karl, a representative from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, fails to dissuade the Youngers from moving into their new home.

Also taking place in 1959, Clybourne Park, directed by Pam MacKinnon, opens with Bev (Christina Kirk) and Russ (Frank Wood) packing to leave the home in which their son, a Korean War veteran, committed suicide. Caring only about the neighborhood’s “culture,” Karl (Jeremy Shamos) stops by the home — with his deaf wife, Betsy (Annie Parisse) — to ask Bev and Russ to reconsider their move.

The living room becomes crowded with a clergyman (Brendan Griffin) sent to help Russ; a black maid (Crystal A. Dickinson) and her husband (Damon Gupton), who offer to help Bev even though she continues to patronize them; and Karl and a clueless Betsy, whose husband continues to harass Russ about the Youngers.

Hilarity ensues as the characters ignorantly allow racism to quickly take over their heated conversations.

The second act, in which the same actors occupy new roles, opens to the same living room 50 years later, now damaged and worn down with graffiti, and proves that not much has changed in terms of stereotypes and racism.

Lindsey (Parisse) and Steve (Shamos) plan to tear down the house to build a new one. The great-granddaughter of Lena Younger, also named Lena (Dickinson), petitions with her husband, Kevin (Gupton), and Tom (Griffin), the representative of the Owners Association, to stop the new owners from building a two-story home.

Lena wants to preserve the history of the home. But her defense rings eerily similar to Karl’s, who wanted to preserve the culture of the neighborhood. And just as quickly as the first act, the tension becomes unbearable in the second. The characters seem to be more self-aware of prejudices and stereotypes, but this doesn’t stop them from making blatantly racist jokes. Norris successfully mocks society and the great strides it thinks it has made.

The actors do an excellent job of expressing each character’s flaws and emotions. As Wood channels Russ’s anger, he gets audiences to understand the character’s pain. Russ, a grieving father angry at the neighborhood for the poor reception his son received after neighbors found out he killed civilians while in battle, gives up on society’s hypocrisies and lashes out at everyone in the living room.

And Shamos perfectly portrays Karl as the most disagreeable character. Dickson, however, does not successfully switch into her new role in the second act. Though all the actors noticeably change their dialect to fit with the 2009 time period, Dickson continues to sound like the 1950s maid she portrays in the first act.

At times, the actors go too far — the script at fault —  in their seemingly pointless discussions, such as the origin of the name for Neapolitan ice cream. The ice cream symbolizes the themes of race and integration Norris intends for the audience to pick up, but the extensive talk about ice cream fails to entertain the audience.

Before coming to the Mark Taper Forum, Clybourne Park ran in Playwrights Horizons in a proscenium theater. For its Los Angeles venue, the set was adapted for a thrust stage. Scenic designer Daniel Ostling constructs a naturalistic set that effectively takes the audience into the 1950s and right back to recent times in 2009.

And the costumes by designer Ilona Somogyi only complement the set to bring about the same effect on the audience. The changes in set and costumes snap the audience back into current society — a society audiences can relate to — to be able to put the second act into a better perspective.

Though A Raisin in the Sun might make audiences leave the theater thinking the 1950s were a different time, Clybourne Park makes a connection to the present with the audience.

The Pulitzer Prize winner leaves audience members gasping at racist jokes but quickly causes them to laugh, leaving audiences to wonder how different they are from the characters onstage.


Clybourne Park is playing at the Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center in Downtown Los Angeles through Feb. 26.