Of Property Values and Prejudice

Clybourne Park

Written by Bruce Norris as a spin-off of sorts to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun, Clybourne Park is a play fully aware of its importance and the satire and social criticism it serves up. You can see the playwright’s message coming at you from a mile away. It still doesn’t prevent you from enjoying it, though. Particularly when it’s delivered by such a competent group of local actors.

Clybourne Park is a two-act play about racism and the politics of race, but also about integration, social structure, gentrification, and how we navigate our expectations and perceived limitations within those often-unseen confines.

In the first act, we’re transported back to 1959 Chicago in an all-white, middle class neighbourhood; black maid and all. Bev and Russ have sold their bungalow to a black family, upsetting the ‘social order’ and creating havoc among their friends who now fear that the value of their homes will be affected as a direct result. The dialogue, the dynamics between men and women, between black and white characters are true to the times. It’s a time warp of sorts and, if you exclude the racism and sexism, there’s a nostalgic twinge of bygone simplicity to it all.

In the second act, we fast-forward to Chicago in 2009. The now predominantly black neighbourhood has bounced back, and affluent, young, and mainly white buyers are looking to purchase. With shifting dynamics and demographics, the (mainly black) owners in the community are worried about gentrification and about the character of the area changing along with new arrivals.

It’s a current theme in many urban communities today (Montreal being no exception) as older, established, working-class neighbourhoods that have survived lean times, suddenly become hip and desirable, driving prices up and low-income residents out.

It’s interesting to see Norris take inspiration from A Raisin in the Sun, use certain references and secondary characters as the main characters of his play, and then flip the script around and show us an entirely different social dynamic, observing different people during a very different era fearing different things. The social divide is still there, though.

Post-racial world? Not quite!

Norris’ play was cleverly written to poke fun at notions that we’re living in a post-racial world. Racism still exists of course; it’s just much more subtly displayed and observed in civilized company. Perceptions, expectations, clichés abound and guide people’s behaviour. Racial integration has, of course, taken place, if we compare today to the ‘50s and ‘60s, but things haven’t gotten any easier. In some respects, if one takes their cues from a chaotic, messy Act Two, things are even more toxic and convoluted today. Sometimes, to borrow Maya Angelou’s line, even when you know better, you still don’t do better.

When the play first hit stages in 2009 Obama was getting ready to move into the White House and the time was ripe for conversations on race and racial tensions. The world seemed a more hopeful place. Clybourne Park went on to win the Tony Award, the Olivier Award in the U.K. and the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for drama.

While complex and still biting as satire, the play and some of the dialogue in Act Two feel a little dated in 2017 (when you’re living in a time when the President of the U.S. has been recorded saying “grab them by the pussy”, it’s hard to be shocked by any on-stage interaction challenging PC culture) but it’s still a masterful piece of writing, touching on numerous hot-button issues in a hilarious fashion.

At the centre of this play is a home. Home, of course, is about more than four walls and the roof over your head. It’s about belonging, about finding your refuge and your escape from the world. Home is about the bonds that are formed – both within the four walls and the outside perimeters. The concept of home means different things to different people, coloured as it is by our cultural and racial background, our history, and our knowledge of the past. Home is the part of the world that you get to decorate and define as you wish. Home, ultimately and inevitably, extends to your neighborhood and how it can enhance and expand your value (gentrified, hip neighborhoods) and how it can limit you and put you in your place (segregation, ghettos). And, often, those definitions and those property and human values are arbitrary, imposed societally, and extremely fluid and ever-changing over the years.

Solid Montreal production

The Centaur’s Quebec English-language premiere is a solid undertaking, in the capable hands of local actor and director Ellen David. Harry Standjofski as Russ probably gives one of the best performances of his career (and as an avid theatre goer I’ve seen this competent local actor more than a few times in the past two decades), while Lisa Bronwyn Moore is pitch-perfect as the ‘50s housewife with the high-pitched sing-song-y voice and the simplicity and naivete of her world views, which in some ways are wiser than the views of all the men in the play. Marcel Jeannin, last seen in the Segal’s incredibly fun production of Noises Off, is excellent as Karl Linder, the neighbour who’s worried that a black family moving into the neighbourhood will affect property values. Liana Montoro as Francine the long-suffering and patient maid and Kwasi Songui as her baritone-voiced husband strike the right balance between graceful patience and eye-rolling annoyance. Matthew Gagnon and Eleanor Noble provide the much-needed laughs and competently ease in and out of their different roles and vastly contrasting characters.

All in all, I felt that the first act of the play worked much better than the second one, which felt a bit jumbled and chaotic to me. But perhaps that was the playwright’s intent. Perhaps he meant to show that nothing’s been smoothed out, nothing’s been figured out. We’re awkwardly stumbling along, moving forward in tiny increments, making a lot of noise along the way.

There are no answers to be found in Clybourne Park. Only astute observations about prejudice and property values – tackled with and without PC culture. It’s a production worth catching, both for its ever-pertinent subject matter, as well as its solid performances by a very competent local cast.

Clybourne Park runs at the Centaur Theatre until April 30. For information and/or tickets, you can call 514-288-3161 or access the Centaur Theatre website online here.