News & Articles
2011-2012, Volume 1
Welcome to Clybourne Park
by Martha Lavey
Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park opens our season of Dispatches from the Homefront. We chose the word “dispatch” in our theme language to suggest a missive—urgent in nature—from a zone in conflict. Very particularly we are interested in exploring how the safety of home is defined against the threat of the other, and the conflicts that arise as we defend and define ourselves. Bruce’s play embodies all of these ideas: it is an urgent address to some of the very particular conflicts that define the American home of the last half century.
The first act of the play is set in 1959 in the home of Russ and Bev, whose son served in the Korean War. The Korean War occupies a curious place in American history. It has been described as a “proxy war,” whose issues were unclear. It is the “Forgotten War” in some narratives—positioned between WWII and the Vietnam War, both of which conflicts are more clearly defined in American consciousness. It is canny of Bruce to seize on this interval in the American experience: the 1950s live in our imagination as a time of a domestic placidity, an interval of conformity and homogeneity. By introducing the legacy of the Korean War into the narrative, Bruce hints at the turbulence below
the domestic tranquility of an America of peace and prosperity. The changes that will rock the country throughout the 1960s are latent in the world that Bruce creates in this opening act.
The second act of the play moves the action 50 years forward. Set in the same home in Chicago, in a fictive neighborhood that Bruce names “Clybourne Park,” the second act, set in 2009, evidences the changes that this neighborhood—and this country—have undergone in these 50 years.
Central to Bruce’s interest is race in America. He takes as his frame Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal drama, A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry’s play opened on Broadway in 1959 and tells the story of an African-American family in Chicago who receive an inheritance that allows them to leave their cramped apartment and move into a house in a white neighborhood. The play details both the resistance they experience from their white neighbors and the conflicts within their own family borne of their competing dreams. Seizing upon A Raisin in the Sun as the referent for his own play, Bruce takes a cherished American drama and imagines the next iteration of its characters’ lives.
What we get, in Clybourne Park, is the story of Hansberry’s play from a white perspective. Russ and Bev, the owners of the home in Clybourne’s Act I, are the white family that sell their home to the Youngers of Hansberry’s play. What is revealing, hearing the story from their perspective, is their motivation for selling their home. While Hansberry’s play imagines the white community as monolithic—a community united in its resistance to the prospect of black neighbors—in Bruce’s imagining, Russ and Bev are selling their home precisely because they no longer feel a part of their community. Their son’s difficult experience in the war alienates them from their neighbors and the disillusionment they feel with “neighborhood” and “home” sends them out to the suburbs—what became, at the time, a white migration from the city toward a vision of sanctity and community.
In the second act of Clybourne Park, we witness the return of the next generation—the adults who had spent their childhood in the suburbs—who now seek a life in the city. Steve and Lindsey are the prototypical young couple, a baby on the way, who buy a home in a “changing” neighborhood—into the very home that Russ and Bev sold to a black family in Act I. They love the neighborhood but envision a total revision of the house. The second act details the negotiation of their property rights and their encounter with Kevin and Lena, a black couple whose roots in the neighborhood vest their interest in the preservation of its historical character.
The scenario that Bruce has created provides the ground for an increasingly frank encounter with the tensions inherent in gentrification. Initially, the attempt to find common ground: the effort on the part of Steve and Lindsey to prove their street cred by talking about the black friends they have, their shared experiences in world travel. The closer they get—pressurized by Lena—to the issue of race, the more clumsy their attempts to find comity become. Bruce explores the impossibly awkward language of well-meaning white people whose own racial bias is invisible to them and their anger, eventually, about never being able to say the right thing.
The very particular conflict of neighborhood and home ownership is amplified in the play by the frequent reference to world geography. In both acts, the characters puzzle over the names of world capitals, of the appropriate designations of citizens from a variety of countries, all the while relating their various travel experiences. This negotiation of knowledge and experience is both a contest—a register of their relative sophistication—and a humorous display of their blithe misunderstanding of “otherness.” The presiding theme of these sallies is territory: from the neighborhood to the world stage, the characters in the play, and, Bruce suggests—Americans—barge in, tourists/consumers, to lands not their own. Territoriality creates the “other”; private ownership demands a protective and defensive stance.
It’s tantalizing to imagine a third act for Clybourne Park. An act set in 2059. Will we still be negotiating territory through the prism of race? Will we have learned a language that accommodates our increasingly diverse America? If the fifty years of progress that Bruce evidences in Clybourne Park are our guide, our forays into this new territory will be both earnest and comic. Human nature is, perhaps forever, a carnival of good intentions and deep, tribal demands. It is a pleasure to offer a robust encounter with this, our dual nature, in Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park: a complex, clever, and thought- provoking dispatch from the homefront.