Clybourne Park – Traverse Theatre

‘Clybourne Park’ is an incisive look how racial ideas manifest in unexpected areas. Act I is set in 1959, and Act 2 in 2009. Both play out in the same house in Chicago. The catalyst is when Bev and Russ, a white couple, sell their house in 1959. Soon, they discover the house was sold to a black couple. What follows is a debate sucking in every unsuspecting character, as links between race, property, and the importance of honouring history are brought up in a way that brings into question many characters’ integrity.

Closer to its debut, Clybourne Park won the Pulitzer Prize and as well as Tony and Olivier awards. It is easy to see why – each word is laden with interpretative potential. This implicates a lot of moral responsibility on the audience. Next to me, two ladies were laughing as though they were traumatized, and giving long ‘ohhh’s in disappointment when something controversial was said. I felt annoyed with them – ‘come on, it’s not that shocking!’ I thought. Then – ‘why is it not that shocking?’

For me, this play’s genius comes from how disarming it is. Funny and entertaining, it made me sit forward in my chair with my eyes glued to the action. Yet ultimately the questions of the show were brought to life in my mind more firmly than if I had been conscientious about them. I didn’t care that I laughed about shocking things. I think this suggests that the ardent seriousness that develops in response to flippant attitudes to race also has its practical flaws.

The entire cast multirole and play a different character in each act. The play got off to a slow start, but thankfully with its long run time the pace naturally picked up. I had a dizzy moment where I unfocused from the stage and suddenly found myself rows away. Jack Lord and Frances McNamee were particularly captivating. They combined pathos and the line of intellectual thought running through the play with wholly fleshed-out characters and dramatism, with none taking precedence. Indeed all the actors are excellent. Their delivery in both acts is very familiar: unrelenting back-and-forth that gets them nowhere, much like in Facebook comment sections or the parliament. This show, however, shows that this is nothing new, and is part of much of history.

The set and stage design are stunning. In Act I, the house has a cosy but sad feel to it. The brown and dark red hues suggest a family house with a lot of memories that mean a lot but aren’t something you’d want to stay with for long. In Act II, the house is derelict, with paint falling off the walls and lots of airy space. An openness and bright light in Act II makes the house feel like there isn’t much history to it. This makes the revelation of the tragedy that happened in it in 1959 so powerful for the people hearing it in 2009.

This play is brilliant and I would strongly recommend people to rush to see it.

 

Clybourne Park is on tour now. Tickets and locations can be found here.

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James Sullivan

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