By Ruth Ross
When Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, many Americans believed that the United States had entered a post-racial period. Well, anyone going to the Chatham Playhouse to see their breath-taking production of Bruce Norris's 2010 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning drama, Clybourne Park, will soon be disabused of that sentiment—post-haste!
Under John A.C. Kennedy's splendid direction, a cast of seven actors showcases the caliber of community theater that is the Chatham Community Players' hallmark. Moving away from what used to be community theater's bland fare, the troupe has consistently tackled what would be termed "touchy" subjects, much to the delight of audiences who continue to fill the little black box theater's seats no matter how cutting edge the play may be.
Written in response to Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Clybourne Park portrays events set before and after the source play and is loosely based on historical events that occurred in the city of Chicago. As described by Kennedy in his Director's Notes, Norris' play is actually two one-act plays that could stand alone. But when performed in tandem, they "take us on an arduous, fascinating and slightly haunted historic journey" that happens to take place in the same living room. Knowledge of the Hansberry play is not necessary to enjoy and understand Clybourne Park.
Both plays take place in Chicago and involve the sale of the same house in a middle class neighborhood. In the first act, which takes place in 1959, a white family (Bev and Russ) has sold to a black buyer, much to the vociferous consternation of their white neighbors. In the second act, which takes place in 2009, the black sellers (Lena and Kevin), who have sold her aunt's house to a white yuppie couple, discover much to their dismay that the buyers plan to "renovate" the house and thus destroy the historic character of this newly gentrified neighborhood.
Kennedy's talented cast does double duty in multiple roles; one even plays three. Once again, Gloria Lamoureaux shows us why she should be called "The First Lady of Community Theater." As Bev, the rather ditzy housewife in the first act, she struggles to be taken seriously by her husband, while she grapples with unexpressed grief. In Act II, Lamoureaux plays the well-traveled albeit ignorant lawyer Kathy. In the former role, her vulnerability is evident; in the latter, she is the quintessential know-it all. Gordon Wiener is equally as fine as Bev's husband Russ, an intelligent man angry that his community has abandoned him after his son's suicide. He smolders until he erupts, taking us aback with his outpouring of grief. In Act II, Wiener plays the loud-mouthed worker Dan who is digging a trench for the koi pond planned for the new house to be erected once the current building has been torn down. (Above L-R: Gloria Lamoureaux, Tasha R. Williams, Brandon A. Wright, Gordon Wiener)
Tasha Williams is transformed from the timid maid Francine (right) into a very outspoken Lena in Act II, mirroring the sea change that has come over black women in the half century between acts. When she wrests control of Act II from the squabbling white characters, she is a force to behold! As Francine's husband Albert, Brandon A. Wright (left) shows spunk by talking back to white people in the first act; he is more reticent in Act II as Kevin, a young man who has clearly "made it" and is comfortable with his success. Peter Horn (below) is outstandingly obnoxious as Karl, in a rage because the buyers of Russ and Bev's house are black; he delivers cringe-inducing dialogue as though he believes every word. In the second act, as the real estate agent Tom (the son of the agent who sold the house in the first act), he's more concerned about wrapping up the sale by 4 PM so he can make his next appointment.
But it is a Scott Tyler (right l) whose startling performance really sets the play (and everyone's teeth) on edge is. In the first act, he is terrific as a sanctimonious Rev. Jim, who has come to counsel Russ but who soon finds himself in the middle of a vociferous discussion of race, revealing his own bigotry as he unwittingly chimes in. In the second act, Tyler portrays Steve, the house's tightly wound white buyer, with energy and flair. Enraged, he jumps up and down to make a point; he talks over everyone else and tells a stupid racial joke without regard for how it will be received by the others. He is the epitome of crass intolerance, although he tries to pass himself off as an enlightened liberal. Portraying a pregnant wife in both acts, Christine Laydon is believable as Betsy, deaf to her husband Karl's bigotry, and later as a more sympathetic Lindsay, trying to hush her husband but finally revealing her own narrow-mindedness once the liberal curtain has been lifted. All the actors are to be commended for delivering the dialogue in a natural and convincing manner; one never feels that they are "reciting" lines Norris has written for them.
The first-class production values for Clybourne Park enhance what is already a powerful play. Roy Pancirov has designed a set that does double-duty: first as the modest abode of a middle class couple living in the 50s and next as a pretty run-down house being sold by the black couple (it was owned by Lena's aunt). Beverly Wand's unfussy costumes fit the eras perfectly, and they tell us something about the characters wearing them. Joe DeVico is to be commended for his sound design with music from a radio that helps set the time period very well. It is worth staying in the auditorium during intermission to view the video portraying the events related to the Civil Rights era projected on back wall of the stage and to witness the complete transformation of the set. That is a show in itself!
The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by police and the subsequent demonstrations, along with the racial vitriol constantly directed at President Obama, unfortunately makes Clybourne Park relevant in this supposedly post-racial era. Whether we face our prejudices or deny them, the Chatham Community Players' production of this important play will get you thinking and talking about the relationship between races in the United States. If the play makes you feel uncomfortable, then great: It is the purpose of art is to challenge the status quo, rather than rubber stamp it. Drama's transformative power is to be found onstage at the Chatham Playhouse. They are to be commended for a production worthy of Broadway!
Clybourne Park will be performed at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 N. Passaic Ave., Chatham, for one more weekend through October 18. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM. For information, call the box office at 973.635.7363 or visit the theater’s online ticketing service, simply go to ccp.ticketleap.com. The service is available 24 hours a day, and tickets can be purchased online up until three hours prior to curtain on the day of a performance. For information regarding box office hours, please call the box office number listed above.
Photos by Howard Fischer.