Every high school student is exposed to Lorraine Hansberry’s ground-breaking “A Raisin in the Sun,” her play dealing with so-called “red-lining” in Chicago’s housing districts. Based on a real life chapter in her own family it was (with the exception of one white character) the first all-black play on Broadway and the first one directed by an African-American. While it did not win any of its four nominated Tony Awards, it did make stars of Sidney Portier, Ruby Dee and other cast members who went on to appear in a film version of the stage work in 1961.
Years after the civil rights era blew the lid off unfair housing and the Fair Housing Act was passed by Congress, a musical based on Hansberry’s play, “Raisin” was nominated and won the Best Musical Tony for 1973.
The importance of “A Raisin in the Sun” was so compelling to playwright Bruce Norris that in advance of the 50th anniversary of its opening, he set about writing “Clybourne Park,” a two-act play that revisits the story from an entirely different set of perspectives. In the first act, set in 1959, the sale of the house to the fictional Younger family from the perspective of the white family who sell it is told.
In the second act, set in 2009, the tables are reversed as the now-black neighborhood fights an upscale white professional couple who desire entrée into the area and propose increasing the height of the property. Although the New York Times said Hansberry’s play “changed American theatre forever,” Norris’ work did much better. It not only won the Tony Award for Best Play, but also a Pulitzer Prize for drama. It also was the first time a play also won a coveted Olivier Award for its presentation as Best New Play on the London stage.
Director Francesca McKenzie and the Cripple Creek Theatre Company were successful in getting the rights to perform this important play as a regional premiere at the Shadowbox Theatre, where it opened last week. One of the key points is a partnership involving the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center and their personnel having talkbacks with the audience following several performances.
McKenzie and assistant director and production manager Andrew Vaught (who also fronts as Cripple Creek’s artistic director) assembled a top notch cast for this riveting work. In Act One, Mary Pauley is superb as Bev, the concerned wife of Russ, played remarkably by Jackson Townsend. The minor white character of Karl Lindner in “Raisin in the Sun” is fleshed out in Norris’ play, revealing that he is a more sympathetic character than we might suspect from his appearance in Hansberry’s work. Ian Hoch plays Lindner with great sensitivity, while Emile Whelan displays exceptional acting ability as she portrays Betsy, his deaf wife. Dylan Hunter plays Jim, a minister, who seeks to stop the sale at the behest of the neighborhood group.
Some of the best moments in the first act take place between beleaguered housekeeper Francine, played by Monica Harris, and Bev. It is obvious that Francine, who is about to lose her job when Bev and Russ move, knows the line over which she should not go as a black woman in the Chicago that existed then. One scene emphasizes this when Bev, feeling guilty for a number of reasons, insists Francine takes a chafing dish from her. The chafing dish is a symbolic payment to alleviate Bev of the guilt she feels. Francine’s reluctance is also reflected in her resistance to having her husband Albert, played by Martin Bradford, assist the family in moving a small chest from upstairs containing painful momentos that Russ has stubbornly refused to move. Bev again offers the chafing dish, but is again refused.
In Act Two, the situation is reversed. It is now 2009 and the couple moving into the neighborhood are a gentrified white couple, Steve (Hoch) and Emile (Whelan). They are represented by the daughter of the Lindners (Pauley). The black couple of Lena and Kevin (Harris and Bradford), who challenge them, is related to the Youngers of 1959, but the primary reason they and their lawyer Tom (Hunter), a direct descendant of the person who sold the house to the Youngers on behalf of Bev and Russ, are fighting the application for a zoning variance on height is not race or attachment to family, but the effect on the property values of the surrounding neighborhood. Ironically, this was the reason given for the original resistance in 1959 by Lindner and others to having blacks move into their all-white neighborhood. Hunter is also seen in Act Two as Kenneth, the unseen son of Bev and Russ, in a key scene near the end.
“Clybourne Park” needs no words to mark its importance in recent theatre history. It is compelling and purposefully shows in whatever decade, while things may appear to be different on the outside, racism and mistrust still lies somewhere beneath the surface. This is a monumental work and the excellent production at the Shadowbox Theatre gives it a greater impact than were it being run by a less experienced, less caring and less community-connected company than Cripple Creek.
“Clybourne Park” continues at the Shadowbox Theatre, 2400 St. Claude Avenue, Friday through Sunday nights at 8:00 p.m, through June 23. Tickets are available online here or by calling 504-264-1776.