Clybourne Park

by Bruce Norris
Directed by Howard Shalwitz
Starring Mitchell Hebert, Jennifer Mendenhall, Dawn Ursula, Jefferson A. Russell, Michael Glenn, Cody Nickell, Kimberly Gilbert
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St NW, Washington, DC
production web site:
through April 17, 2010 (extended)

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
April 11, 2010

In Clybourne Park, playwright Bruce Norris has imagined a single Chicago bungalow through fifty years, multiple families, waves of social transition, and individual stories.  This is a masterful new American play that has already enjoyed productions in Chicago and New York, and if the reception by the audiences in DC is any indication: this show has legs.

In two acts, eight actors portray fifteen characters at two ends of a 50 years time span — 1959 in Act One and 2009 in Act Two.  Whether race and class characteristics are dominant or “outsider” in the Clybourne Park of this play, in this particular house these themes are the source of drama, discussion, thought-provoking contemplation.  We see our American landscape and a very American vernacular presented, with directness, with humor, with pathos.

The first act envisions a neighborhood about to change with an African-American family’s purchase of a home in an all white area.  Inspired by Lorraine Hansberry‘s life experience and her play A Raisin in the Sun based upon those events, this 1959 act introduces us to parents Russ (Mitchell Hebert) and Bev (Jennifer Mendenhall), mourning the loss of their Korean War veteran son Kenneth (Chris Dinolfo), and selling their home to start life anew in another Chicago neighborhood. They employ Francine (Dawn Ursula) as a domestic, whose husband Albert (Jefferson A Russell) comes to retrieve her at the end of her work day, and observes and is provoked by conversations among the white neighbors who fill the house as the Act proceeds.  Jim (Michael Glenn) is a parish priest who stops by to assist visiting Karl (Cody Nickell), member of the homeowner’s association who has paid a visit to the new African-American purchasers of the property to offer to buy them out.  This is the palpable connection to Raisin‘s plot of course — importing this visiting home association member from that older play to this newly envisioned story.  And finally, to add nuance and sympathy to what might be a simply dastardly character, Karl’s very pregnant wife Betsy (Kimberly Gilbert) is present, waiting, oblivious, loving., and deaf.  And Karl the bigot is kind with her and speaks in sign language.  Act Two 50 years later re-sorts the roles of dominant class and culture and each actor takes on a different mantle, magnificently.  Some characters are related closely or tangentially to characters in the first act, but these blood ties aren’t necessary to tell this story.  We study shifts in who represents the home association (an African American couple this time) discussing issues of renovation rules with a young white couple moving in.  And we focus not only who is “right” but on how the discussion proceeds, and check our own beliefs and life experiences and prejudices as the events of the play unfold.

Set design by James Kronzer evokes a bungalow version of August: Osage County, with several twists. This house has secrets.  Lighting by Colin K. Bills+ creates peeling paint and layers of plaster, and passing headlights.

Taut, provocative storytelling, masterfully acted.  I would love to see this again.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 16, 2010)

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