REVIEW: CLYBOURNE PARK
By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
Saturday, September 11, 2010.
In Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, the language is often raw and crude, but the writing and performances are sharp and hilarious. In two equally entertaining but different acts, Norris aims his quick-witted writing at the hollow shell of integration in a hilarious satire, which depicts the mythical importance of our homes and neighbourhood.
Race is the big elephant in the room, and Norris’ characters dramatise not just the rituals of upward mobility but also racism and communal tensions – things that are well-hidden behind political correctness and updated doublespeak. There are distinct reminders of August Wilson’s Radio Golf and the running joke of the gentrification of Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant section in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
Clybourne Park is the unseen dream neighbourhood of Lorraine Hansberry's much revived play A Raisin in The Sun. That play – the first by a Black woman to be performed on Broadway - dramatised an African American family’s dilemma in the face of hostility caused by their planned relocation to an all-white Chicago enclave.
Norris’ perceptive idea is to rework Hansberry's classic by setting his story in that same house five decades apart. The terrain he sets out on is the obsessive myth of property owning upward mobility. At the heart are the changes in attitudes and ambitions of Americans as the Civil Rights era transformed from boycotts, sit-ins and marches against segregation and discrimination, to demands for full equality.
It’s a heavy load to carry but a weight Norris achieves with quite some finesse by taking a fly-on-the-wall view rather than aiming for a cumbersome epic.
He sets his story in the neat family home of Russ and Bev whose sale of 406 Clybourne Street to a Black family - inadvertently it transpires – stirs up the resentment of neighbours to the imminent arrival of their new neighbours.
With scalpel like satire, comedy, some slapstick humour and high drama, a somewhat heavy story is delivered like a 1950s sit com as the stage [designed by Robert Innes-Hopkins] is transformed into a traditional 1950s style suburban sitting room. Royal Court Artistic Director Dominic Cooke's expert direction reveals racist attitudes at the most superficial level - that of manipulated individuals rather than the complex interlinked system of legal, economic, cultural and social pillars of the society.
Manic performances by an excellent Sophie Thompson and Steffan Rhodri give the quick fire, sparky and pacy dialogue life, as this couple go through the rituals of married life as tension builds. Their bottled up secrets and emotions are gradually revealed with the arrival of Jim the priest [Sam Spruell0] and interfering Kenneth [versatile Martin Freeman]. The presence of maid Francine [Lorna Hall] and her husband Albert [Lucian Msamati] only create more farcical episodes.
Jump forward five decades, this time with the demographics of the neighbourhood having changed although the petty attitudes live on. Act two centres around a community meeting to decide on the renovation of the house; six characters sit around this once handsome - now dilapidated home. They tiptoe around long established social boundaries exchanging pleasantries and small talk with well-maintained restraint. It soon degenerates into mutual insults though – to hilarious effect; and it’s definitely not for the faint hearted.
This is skilful writing which perfectly captures the mood and language of two eras where the complexity of human relationships is often scarred by suspicion or resentment.
Bruce Norris' entertaining reworking of Hansberry's influential play is not as profound as it perceives itself to be. But, with well observed dialogue that reflects the pettiness of life, the tensions in relationships and the often simplistic protocols of contemporary society, it is a sparkling reality check to any post racial illusions nourished by the Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency.
Photograph: Tristram Kenton
by Bruce Norris
Jerwood Theatre Downstairs
Royal Court Theatre
020 7656 5000 or online at www.royalcourttheatre.com
until 31 July 2010
Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.