Towards the end of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun, the Younger family receives a surprise visitor to their tiny, crowded, roach-infested apartment on the south side of Chicago. It’s Karl Lindner, a representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, and he has come to offer them a financial incentive to reverse their decision to purchase a home in his (predominantly white) neighborhood. The visit is a decisive moment in the plot of Hansberry’s play, starkly revealing the racial politics and racist attitudes that confronted families like the Youngers. Walter Younger’s decision to turn down Lindner’s offer and move the family on and (hopefully) up to their new home at 406 Clybourne Street is presented as a mixed victory in the play: he’s made a stand for equal rights and black pride, but the play makes clear that while the Youngers are hopeful about their new lives, they likely face a hostile and potentially violent reception from their new neighbors.
Bruce Norris’s 2009 comedy Clybourne Park (on stage now at the Pittsburgh Public Theater) racks focus on the same set of racial issues, but views them from a different angle. Norris’s play opens on the well-appointed living room of Bev and Russ Stoller, the middle-aged white couple who have sold their home to the Youngers. Francine, their “colored” maid, is helping Bev pack for their upcoming move, which is only ostensibly motivated by Russ’s relocation to a suburban office. In fact, the two are moving because they have been ostracized by their neighbors after their son’s participation in a massacre of civilians during service in the Korean war and his subsequent suicide in his childhood bedroom when he could not find gainful employment upon his return home. On this hot and sunny Saturday morning they too are surprised by a visit from Lindner, fresh from his failed encounter with the Youngers. He’s come to try to convince the Stollers to void their sales agreement, trotting out familiar arguments about property values and community cohesion and, in a hilarious segment that sends up the self-serving logic undergirding racist redlining policies, even drawing Francine and her husband into the conversation in support of his position, grilling them about whether or not they would be “comfortable” moving their family to Clybourne Park and whether they would be able to find the kind of food they like to eat in the local grocery store.
The second act opens on the living room of the same house, in 2009. The beautiful woodwork is gone; the floor is worn and stained; the oak front door has been replaced with a steel door and security screen, triple-locked; it’s clear that the house, and neighborhood, have seen difficult times. Steve and Lindsey, a young white couple expecting their first child, have purchased the house as a fixer-upper (renovation is already in progress) and have applied for a permit variance to add on to the upper stories of the house, exceeding the neighborhood zoning for height. Lena and Kevin, longtime black residents of the neighborhood, have filed a petition protesting the variance. The two couples are in the living room with their legal representatives Kathy and Tom, trying to work out some compromise, but are repeatedly interrupted by cell phone calls and questions from the workmen digging in the garden. In the meantime, what begins as a civil disagreement over the details of an architectural permit gradually devolves into a riotously funny revelation of the deeply held suspicions and stereotypes that continue to govern race relations, even among the kind of open-minded, well-traveled, educated people that these six characters represent.
What makes this play so enjoyable – and what makes it deserving of its Pulitzer and Tony Awards – is its astutely observed depiction of how the discomfort provoked by racial difference has remained a constant, even as its forms have changed. The fifty-year shift in time lets us see that one difference between 1959 and 2009 is that while the elephant (race) is always in the room, in 2009 part of the problem is that white liberals like Lindsey and Steve want to insist it’s no longer there. So, for example, the patronizing and paternalistic attitude taken by the white characters toward Francine and her husband Albert in the play’s first act – epitomized by Bev’s repeated insistence that Francine accept her gift of a chafing dish, and her dismay and disbelief when her charity is refused – hasn’t disappeared in the second act, it has merely morphed into the white characters’ delicate tap-dance around racially sensitive topics, as when they patronizingly euphemize their (obviously held) opinion that the neighborhood’s decline came as a result of its demographic shift from white to black. And the 2009 white characters’ almost-desperate attempts to find areas of common ground with the black couple (the fact that they all work downtown, for example, or that they’ve all been to Prague) is a nifty bit of ethnographic observation on Norris’s part: in their attempts to pretend that there is no difference between themselves and Kevin and Lena, they succeed mainly in calling attention to those differences.
The production at the Public is terrifically fun, particularly in the second act when the sparks start to fly. The ensemble plays the comedy with flair and commitment; in particular, Tim McGeever is superb as Lindner and Steve, in both cases giving something to like in a character who says many hateful things; and Brad Bellamy gives depth and pathos to Russ, the grieving angry father. The house itself (designed by Michael Schweikardt) has something of a star turn, and I recommend you stay and observe during the intermission as the scene crew decomposes the Stoller house in a lovely sequence of precisely timed choreography. Its metamorphosis stands as an apt metaphor for the play’s observations on racial attitudes and relations: like the house, our stereotypes and attitudes about race seem to have remained structurally the same, even as they have shapeshifted and taken new forms.