Racial Prejudice Then and Now in “Clybourne Park”
By Skip Sheffield
White Flight: those were explosive works in the South during desegregation.
But white flight was not unique to the South. It happened all over the USA; anywhere citizens were fearful of minorities moving in and “breaking” their homogenous neighborhoods.
“Clybourne Park,” enjoying a premiere run through Feb. 6 at Caldwell Theatre, is about white flight and much more.
Playwright Bruce Norris has crafted two stories in two time periods 50 years apart. The first act is set in 1959 in the Chicago suburb of the title. Act Two is set in the same house in the same neighborhood in 2009. The cast of characters is different in each act, but they are played by the same actors who relate many of the same sentiments.
Russ (Kenneth Kay) and Bev (Patti Gardner) are a married couple on the cusp of major change. Their maid Francine (Karen Stephens) is in the process of packing up the couple’s possessions, for a sale is pending on their house.
Neighborhood vicar Jim (Cliff Burgess) has stopped by to offer some farewells and platitudes.
Russ is in a distinctly troubled state, talking to himself and uttering seemingly nonsense syllables, while his wife seems oblivious.
Russ becomes even more agitated when Karl (Gregg Weiner) and his pregnant, deaf wife Betsey (Margery Lowe) pay a call. It is not just a social call. Self-appointed neighborhood watchdog Karl has learned Russ intends to sell to a black couple. Karl sees the move as the first step in plummeting values and the ruination of the neighborhood.
The smiling reverend is not exactly neutral. He thinks his parish should buy the property to “preserve the character of the community.”
Caught in the crossfire are Francine and her good-natured husband Albert (Brain D. Coats), who are asked their opinions as “good negroes.”
“Clybourne Park” is billed as a comedy, and director Clive Cholerton and his cast do their best to delineate the laughs.
It is a comedy with bite however, rooted in a tragedy that is reveled toward the end of Act One. There are hidden meanings to the increasingly heated conversations, culminating in an explosive finale.
In Act Two Kenneth Kay has been reduced to a bit part as a hard-hat architect named Dan.
Karen Stephens and Brian D. Coats are now Lena and Kevin, head of the neighborhood association of the now black community. Lena is related to the family that moved into the house 50 years ago.
Gregg Weiner plays another pain in the butt character named Steve, who with wife Lindsay (Margery Lowe again) are the new owners of the house. They see it not as history, but a prime piece of real estate ripe for development.
Cliff Burgess plays another obsequious character: a Realtor named Tom. Patti Gardner is now a can-do lawyer named Kathy, representing the new owners’ selfish interests.
Things get darker and nastier as true feelings are revealed. Haunting the proceedings is the character of Kenneth (Andrew Wind) the late Korean War veteran son of the original owners.
“Clybourne Park’ was still finding its sea legs on opening night. The laughs were sometimes uneasy and a bit confused, but two powerful performances were already quite polished: Kenneth Kay’s smoldering, grieving father and Karen Stephen’s dual performance as ironically-knowing servant and a proud preserver of family history. The other characters are not as well-written, but they will no doubt come into sharper focus.
Tickets are $38 and $45 (students $10) and may be reserved by calling 561-241-7432 or visiting www.caldwelltheatrecompany.com.