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Race, Pulitzers and Punchlines

An interview with Clybourne Park playwright Bruce Norris and Artistic Producer Rebecca Rugg Excerpted from Reimagining A Raisin in the Sun: Former New Plays, forthcoming from NU Press. Rebecca Rugg: The Royal Court production of Clybourne Park moved to the West End and won the Olivier for Best New Play. And then it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Congratulations. Bruce Norris: On the West End, I felt like I was sitting outside of myself watching this whole thing happen, feeling like it was happening to someone not me. RR: Is that because of anxiety? BN: I have a very complicated relationship to the entire notion of commercial productions at all. Almost in kind of an adolescent way, I have an attitude that if someone likes what I do then that means by definition it is not good. If I do my job correctly I should outrage people and have rotten vegetables thrown at me, that that would be the only proof that I had done something successfully. Like I said, it’s completely adolescent but that’s the instinct that I have. So when people like something that I’ve done and they pay for it, it’s very confusing to me. I don’t understand why they would be paying for it if I wrote it to upset them. RR: How is life different post-Pulitzer? BN: The most important change is that now I have a very attractive glass paperweight with the profile of Joseph Pulitzer etched into it, so my papers remain securely in place on my desktop. RR: Clybourne Park is a very complex play about race, among other topics. The experience of watching it, and I’ll speak here as a white person, is quite complicated. BN: Well, I think the most interesting question that has been put to me about it was the one you put to me last time we talked, which was “did you write this play for white people?” Remember? RR: Yeah, and you said yes. BN: And I said yes. RR: And I was totally shocked. I was sure you were going to say no. BN: No, I think it is a play for white people. It’s a play about white people. It’s about the white response to race, about being the power elite, about being the people who have power in the race argument, and what that makes us in the present day - the contortions that makes us go through. Because on the Left we really, really like to deny the power that we have. We don’t want to seem like we’re powerful and have the largest army in the world. We want to pretend that we don’t. So, while the play is about white people, it’s even better if there are black people in the audience because it makes white people even more uncomfortable. RR: I’ve heard you say elsewhere, that Clybourne Park is inspired by Karl Linder, who, before he was yours, was Lorraine Hansberry’s character in A Raisin in the Sun. BN: I saw A Raisin in the Sun as a film in probably 7th grade. Interestingly our Social Studies teacher was showing it to a class of all white students who lived in an independent school district the boundaries of which had been formed specifically to prevent being our being integrated into the Houston school district and being bussed to other schools with black students. So I don’t know whether our teacher was just obtuse or crafty and subversive but she was showing us a movie that basically in the end -- because Karl doesn’t come in until the second act -- is really pointing a finger at us and saying we are those people. So I watch it at twelve years old and I could realize even then that I’m Karl Linder. To see that when you’re a kid and to realize that you’re the villain has an impact. For years I thought I wanted to play Karl Linder but then as time went on I thought it’s really an interesting story to think about the conversation that was going on in the white community about the Younger family moving into Clybourne Park. It percolated for many years and that’s how I ended up writing this play. RR: Can we talk about theatrical realism? Is Clybourne Park part of a theatrical genealogy that you can trace? BN: Well, I tend to write in the “realistic” form because it limits what’s possible and that gives a play a rigidity, a structure. A more freeform approach to writing a play feels loose and a little bit flimsy to me. I like the firm structure that’s imposed by realism, not just realistic behavior, but realistic furniture and facts. If you want to demonstrate something about the way we behave and interact with each other, then it’s really useful to have a concrete world there to interact with. I think when people want to write about dreams and magic onstage, they often don’t have much they want to say about behavior. They want to talk about ideas and not behavior. RR: I had the opportunity to teach this play to students at Northwestern recently, and the subject of the jokes arose. Students wanted to know why the black woman is spared being the punch line of a joke, from a playwright who doesn’t spare anyone. BN: It’s not as though everyone in the room has to be the butt of a joke, one by one. It’s a conversation, not a formula. But also, the black woman IS the person who everyone in that room would be most afraid of offending, the one person who would be off limits. All she has to do is say she’s uncomfortable and everyone gets worried. RR: With those same students we had a long conversation about the presence of the deaf woman in the first act. I wonder if you can talk about that character and the choice to include her. BN: Well the first thing I’ll say is that deaf is funny. And I defy anyone who tells me differently. But it’s not that the deaf woman herself is funny, or her deafness that’s funny, it’s everyone around her and how they treat her and act towards her that’s funny. And it makes it clear how awful everyone is around race, that there is this false CARE taken towards her deafness. It shines a light on race, by contrast. RR: Why isn’t there a disabled person in the contemporary scenes? BN: Well, there wouldn’t be. She’s deaf, and I wanted to make the point that nobody who could HEAR Karl Lindner would marry him. Who else would marry him?