Review: Bitterly funny production Clybourne Park plumbs racial divide

How do you build a community in a country like America, a country constantly changing but also weighed down by a troubled history that divides its people? Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Bruce Norris doesn’t have any easy answers, but with Clybourne Park at least he poses a few questions in a way that keeps everyone on the same page.

His play, which opened the 49th season at Arts Club Theatre Wednesday night, brings us into a neighbourhood in Chicago in two moments of dramatic change, the first in 1959 and the second in present day. Issues of race, community, war and even gender pop up, sending friends and families into turmoil.

Norris’ script moves with agility between humour and sharp social satire, daring the actors to keep up to its breakneck pace. The cast, which includes both newcomers and Arts Club veterans, is largely up to the challenge. It’s particularly breathtaking to watch them manage minutes of overlapping dialogue without devolving into staginess or nonsense.

Voice—who has it and who doesn’t—is a major theme throughout the play, reflecting the movement of power between the characters. In the first act, although most of the lines go to those in power — Robert Moloney’s blustering Karl (who, it should be noted, was drawn directly from Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun) and Andrew Wheeler’s growling Russ — it’s those with little or no voice who really shine.

Sasa Brown who plays Betsy, Ken’s hearing-impaired wife, is particularly wonderful. The initial sounds of her distorted speech seem worrisomely cartoonish but Brown’s skill and commitment to the character become quite clear as Betsy literally struggles for a voice in the thunderous discussion going along around her.

Marci T. House and Daren Herbert, as the African-American domestic Francine and her husband Albert, stand in discomfort as the white people around them argue. Playing characters who have been silenced by the predominant social order, most of the work for these two performers in this first act is in their well-calculated physical reactions.

Director Janet Wright seems to understand that the key to this play is to give the audience access to the body language of all seven cast members even as the script barrels through its course.

The second act shows an America with a much more layered discussion. Now gender and class come into play. Unfortunately, as is often the case with our neighbours to the south, that discussion is so full of rage and misunderstanding that it devolves into a screaming match. No one is willing to listen to anyone else. It’s a testament to the cast and to Norris’s script that the audience manages to stay engaged despite all the noise.

At its heart, Clybourne Park is a comedy. But be warned, some of the jokes are calculated to sting. That’s kind of the point. The most hilarious moments in Clybourne Park are those in which one character is about to say exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time, the humour compounded by the discomfort in both the other characters and the audience. The laughter is meant to expose us even as it brings us together.

However, with the final contemplative moments of the play, Norris leaves us a message about empathy and the virtue of making human connections across seemingly insurmountable boundaries. Imagine the progress we could all make if we just sat down and listened to each other.

Clybourne Park

Where: Arts Club Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage

When: Until October 7

Read it in the Vancouver Sun