‘He cannot… remove the root of his opinion, which is rotten as ever oak or stone was sound’ Act II, Scene III, The Winter’s Tale
Clybourne Park is a gripping piece of theatre, presenting two conflicts set in the same space, fifty years apart. In 1959, Rus and Bev are moving out of their white, privileged middle-class Chicago neighbourhood after their son’s suicide, a veteran of the Korean War. Unknowingly, and to the horror of self-righteous neighbour Karl, the couple have sold their house to the neighbourhood’s first black family. Thus the play is set in its relentless motion.
Throughout, we see characters reflected across time periods as the actors literally double up on roles; ideas are subverted and race tensions are strung across the interval. The dialogue in the second half crackles as writer Bruce Norris tries to rework much of the conflict in the first. For in the second act, the roles are reversed as a young white couple are moving into the house we saw in 1959, which is now located in a predominantly black Chicago neighbourhood. They are in legal dispute with a young black couple who want to maintain the integrity of the architecture of the area, which would be altered by the white couple’s structural plans. Gritty topics of gentrification and race are framed by the overarching story-line of Rus and Bev – played excellently by Jason Imlach and Holly Carpenter – who are mourning the loss of Kenneth – played with equal skill by Charlie Layburn - as his death is brought up in 2009 as munition for not buying the property. Lots of heavy themes to contemplate, and so I personally don’t think much would have been lost from the story if Kenneth’s suicide was removed. For, aside from providing a very deliberate symbol of the blurring of the past and present – Kenneth’s war trunk is exhumed in the present during the rebuilding of the property, after having been buried by Rus in 1959 - I think Norris provided the same message more artfully through the nuances of his language. Speech is mirrored, altered by the character speaking who endows repeated phrases with new meaning, rendering the language more uncomfortable or significant than it was before.
To understand my meaning, take the phrase ‘It’s a matter of principle’ and consider the resonance of Norris’ writing as it is originally spat out by ignorant white neighbour Karl (Finnbar Stewart-Hayman) in 1959 when trying to argue his case for race-segregation, and then when it is completely reversed by Kevin, a young black man in 2009. Played by Cudjoe Asare, Kevin commands the stage as he tries to prevent the mindless gentrification of the area in which he lives. As an audience member, picking up on these fragments of speech, at first a self-gratifying game, actually makes one think of the power of words in different context. The sieving of language from 1959 to 2009 as words get caught in a new characters’ mouth with different meaning is illustrative of the trans-historical nature of the play. Norris suggests that the past is always present by literally repeating words used in another age, all the more symbolic for being spoken in the same space. It seems that, despite the obvious change of the area, people remain the same. The disregard and thoughtlessness regarding race and community which perpetuates from 1959 is exactly what Norris wants to address.
It sounds as if Norris’ writing could just be relentless to watch; like the infamous watching of Lear it could be mistaken for being a formidable, exhausting experience. However the script teases, probes and is fundamentally, extremely funny. Norris delivers without polarising either race or gender, and this is down to the beautiful characterisation of each character – it is easy to see that the young cast are set to flourish, as, ripe from the Old Vic Theatre school, they navigate the stage extremely well. One also has to consider how skillfully they meet the demand of delivering two roles convincingly within the space of a few hours. Such success is certainly testament to Jenny Stephen’s excellent direction.
As much as Norris doesn’t labour his writing with social messages, the message is clear: to approach race issues with only half of the mindlessness that the characters themselves show is deeply toxic, and as active members of society, we should be aware of the past conflicts that make our present the way it is. For community is about cohesion, binding people by their shared values. What doesn’t come to mind perhaps as much as it should do is the problematic fact that community also excludes. For it is not just the similarities within a community which draws it together, but the shared differences from other factions in society which render the community more unified. This idea is stumbled through by Karl (Finnbar Stewart-Hayman) in 1959, who uses food as a way of provoking the ‘differences’ – as argued by himself - for why the black couple should not move into the area. It is with much surprise that Karl learns that black servant, Francine’s (Mofetoluwa Akande) favourite food is spaghetti, and it is therefore with much satisfaction when we are transported to 2009 that we realise Karl did not get his way.
Uncomfortable at times, but rightly so, and constantly thought-provoking, the play acts as an inkblot test – an illustration of how perceptions of race, family values and community conflict are all dependent on the background of the one confronting them. As audience members, a new sense of responsibility should be felt. As ever with current political climates mirroring the injustices seen on the stage, the injustice we feel when watching a play needs to be translated into action in reality. For community doesn’t sustain itself unless the people within it make effort to hold it together.
Esther Bancroft, Theatre Editor