Marquette University offers-up a chance to return to Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park this month. The spinoff of the classic drama A Raisin in the Sun was staged by the Milwaukee Rep not too long ago. The comic drama’s two acts straddle Lorraine Hansberry’s drama, which stands as arguably one of the greatest dramas of the 20th century. The first act takes place in the soon-to-be Younger family home before Hansberry’s play. The second takes place just a few years ago. While it doesn’t exactly live-up to Hansberry’s drama, Clybourne Park is a fascinating look at race relations in 1959 and 2009.
The Distance Between Two Points
The play opens in 1959. Margaret Phillips and Will Knox play a couple who live in the predominantly white Chicago neighborhood of Clybourne Park. They have lost a son. They are selling their house. Phillips plays the restlessly relentless need of a 1950s housewife to make any kind of connection she can. It’s kind of heartbreaking to see Phillips’ desperation. Phillips mixes the longing of need with the overwhelmingly forced cheeriness of June Cleaver. It’s a very difficult balance between desperation and genuine happiness. Norris hands a much more sophisticated challenge to the guy playing her husband, though. Will Knox has to be careful. He’s sitting there in a chair pretending to eat ice cream. And brooding: he’s got to be brooding. (And eating ice cream.) There comes. a point where Jackson Hoemann shows-up expressing concerns that the couple have sold their home to a black family. This brings-up certain issues about the couples’ son and their reason for selling the house below cost . . . and Knox is handed the challenge of switching from brooding-eating-ice cream to explosively angry. And it’s a hell of a weight to hang on any actor to switch from emotionally distant to angry. But Knox plays it quite well. Phillips plays a wife significantly distanced from her husband, who is still very seriously mourning the loss of his son. (She is too, but she’s far more active about trying to make other connections.) The physical distance between Phillips and Knox onstage is more or less negligible. The emotional distance might as well be infinite. Phillips and Knox do a good job of rendering that emotional distance in a first act that feels very emotionally immediate.
Race Relations in a Home On A Small Stage
It’s interesting how quickly things change. The second half of the drama takes place in 2009. So much has happened in race relations since then that a 2009 drama feels like a period piece. Things were so different--so much more...civil during Obama’s first year in office. Of course, they weren’t exactly pleasant. The second act of Norris’ drama has Lindsay Webster and Simon Keiser as a wealthy white couple moving into the home and looking to substantially alter the old building. Brielle Richmond and Mario Walker play a couple concerned about gentrification of the neighborhood. Things are civil between the two couples until verbal aggressions explode...grinding rational discussion to a halt.
The dialogue in that second act is fascinating. Norris has a really clever grasp of the trillion and one distractions that shatter the modern consciousness. There are phone calls and bits of trivia and the occasional bit of distraction from the edges of the moment. A dialogue as fragmented as Norris manages in the second act is fiendishly difficult to bring together, but director Jamie Cheatham has done an excellent job of allowing everyone in the cast to coast through his or her own, individual realities as the gradually come together into...a serious argument. It’s really, really fascinating to watch. Of particular note here is Lindsay Webster as a visibly pregnant woman who is making every effort to be as socially conscious as possible, but narrowly missing at every turn. It’s a very sympathetic portrayal. And Brielle Richmond is AMAZING as an African American woman who is trying to be as even-tempered as possible about presenting her concerns to the white couple.
Marquette University Theatre’s production of Clybourne Park runs through Nov. 18 at the Helfaer Theatre on 1304 W. Clybourn St. For ticket reservations, call (414) 288-7504. A comprehensive review of the show runs in the next print edition of the Shepherd-Express.