It’s a sad thing to admit, but racism is as prevalent as progress in Western History – and modern history unfortunately is no exception. For playwrights, artisans and wordsmiths this has always been a robust source of exploration and inspiration, and the stage has a long tradition of examining social issues without restraint.
Clybourne Park, the new Studio 180 production presented by Mirvish at the Panasonic Theatre, is a fine addition to this tradition of societal analysis as it gnaws at the enduring tones of racism, segregation, and xenophobia in American society by way of a generational gaze at real estate in Chicago. But what sets this play apart from most productions of this sort is its brilliant balance between commentary and entertainment. Yes, most shows are a spectacle, but Clybourne Park is emotional tale of honest characters facing real personal hardships steeped in the social realities of the 1950s and today. It is also a biting satire of these social realities that gravitates perfectly the fine line between poignant and laugh-out-loud funny at times.
Strange combination, I know. But this is a truly unique show.
Taking place entirely within a single home in Chicago’s Clybourne Park neighbourhood, the play looks at racial tension throughout two distinct periods of time – the post-Korean War era of the 1950s and the circa 2009 modern age of gentrification and changing city climates. In both ages the audience is merely introduced to half a story, but taken together both of Clybourne Park’s distinct halves create a unified tale of prejudice and woe.
In the first, the story of Russ (Michael Healy) and Bev (Maria Ricossa) see’s a family of ‘the greatest generation’ on the cusp of leaving the neighbourhood. Tensions both personal and greater arise when Karl (Mark McGrinder), a member of the community protests their choice of buyer. The second half sees the story picks up five decades later when Steve (McGrinder) and Lindsay (Kimwun Perehinec) purchase the house and plan ambitious renovations much to the chagrin of a local neighbourhood group headed by Kevin (Sterling Jarvis) and his wife Lena (Audrey Dwyer). Through subtle references and personal anecdotes the full story of the house – including Russ and Maria’s exile – reveals itself overtime, as does the suffering and pain endured within its walls.
Bruce Norris’ story is an absolute triumph that adheres to the timeless ‘show, don’t tell’ principle of story-telling. Instead of inundating the audience with another moralistic tale on racism as civil ill, Clybourne Park is a snapshot of the subtle nuances and prejudicial behaviour that made racism a reality in the days of the past and continue to perpetuate it today. Racism isn’t expressed through anger or resentment, but through ignorance and fallacious logic. Characters are not mere cardboard cut-outs but layered and honest representations of various social strata and perspectives informed by slants and stereotype. Indeed, racism and prejudice are evil notions, but their manifestation isn’t treated as an evil act in Clybourne Park – as in reality, racial bias in this production stems less from grand design and more from ridiculous logic and fallacy.
The high concept and inventive story-telling of Clybourne Park is complemented by outstanding performances across the board. Though only consisting of seven actors – with each doing double duty for each of the two halves – director Joel Greenberg is able to bring the most out of everyone involved, with each having their moment or two in the sun. The highlights of the cast undoubtedly are Michael Healy and Maria Ricossa – their performances in the first act as a husband and wife still reeling from a terrible loss are absolutely heartbreaking. Each of them imbues their roles in the first piece with an incredible sense of pathos – of disconnection with a terrible sense of sorrow and woe bubbling underneath. In the second half both are relegated to lesser roles, but they end up having some of Clybourne Park’s best one liners and end up stealing the scene every time they utter a word of dialogue.
Of equal praise is Mark McGrinder for his dual role Karl in the first half and Steve in the second. The mouth piece of status-quo racism in both situations, McGrinder is able to illustrate the prejudicial discourses of two very different eras of racism. Whether his tip-toeing and blatant xenophobia in the first act, or his privileged, marginalizing gall in the second, McGrinder lavishes in the role as the lamentable bigot in Clybourne Park.
And as offensive to some as such a role may be it is completely necessary for this play. Instead of attempting to paint the entrenchment of racism in American society as a fringe notion Clybourne Park accepts its existence and instead presents it as something all too common. It doesn’t exist in backwater towns where men in silly hoods roam, but is in every street within every city.
Clybourne Park is an ambitious production despite its stripped down cast and modest scale. It attempts to engage racism by way of real estate and give a biting critique while doing so. For all its modesty it is able to do this on an epic scale. The commentary made across the board is beautifully woven into the fabric of the story – understated enough to not be too imposing, and reinforced enough to not be missed. And as serious as the tone gets it lampoons the ridiculousness of it all, whether in the lunacy of prejudice as an idea, or the marginalizing tone of someone trying to side step the issue.
For all of its humbleness and restraint, it is a production which will scream and shout and leave an impression that will last beyond your time there.
Clybourne Park is playing at the Panasonic Theatre until March 3. For more information, including tickets, click here.