One need not have ever seen Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun to appreciate the setup – or laugh at the jokes – in Bruce Norris’s brilliant 2012 Pulitzer-and-Tony-winning comedy-drama “Clybourne Park.”
Taking place immediately following the events of the original, Clybourne – running through January 25 at 6th Street Playhouse – is a smart, insightful, baldy frank and frequently hilarious examination of the racial divide in America.
Hansberry’s play – which gave many theater-going white folks their first glimpses into the lives of Africa-American families – takes place in a poor, Southside neighborhood of Chicago in 1959, where the African-American Younger family is preparing to move to a house they’ve just purchased in the all-white neighborhood of Clybourne Park. At the end of that play, Karl – a nervous, white representative of Clybourne Park – visits the Youngers, attempting to bully, cajole or outright bribe them into selling the house back – something they ultimately refuse to do.
In “Clybourne Park,” directed with expert comic timing, gripping intensity and escalating drama by Carl Jordan, the action now takes place in the Clybourne Park house the Youngers have purchased.
The place is half-empty, its contents mostly packed into cardboard boxes standing here and there on the nicely detailed set by Ronald Krempetz, as its white residents Bev and Russ prepare to move out of the area. When Karl, the white guy from Raisin in the Sun, appears – having just come from failing to bribe the Youngers – Russ stubbornly digs in his heels at the suggestion he should assist the neighborhood in keeping the black family out.
It turns out Russ has some grudges against his neighbors, in part for the way they treated his son after the Korean War.
The escalating conflict, which pulls in the young minister Jim and Karl’s deaf, very-pregnant wife Betsy, takes place in the presence of Russ and Bev’s longsuffering black housecleaner Lena and her husband Albert, who gradually insert their own opinions about the callous racism they are witnessing.
Decisions are made. Words are exchanged. Lives are changed. Then, in the play’s boldest move, the story suddenly leaps fifty years ahead.
In Act 2, the Younger’s home is now a condemned wreck covered in graffiti, the property about to be demolished following years of drug-enhanced neglect in the once depressed, all-black but now mixed-race and rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. The same, supremely strong flexible cast appears again, this time as contemporary characters, gathering at the house to discuss the details of what kind of structure can be built on the same spot. IT being a historically valuable neighborhood, there are rules how big, and how tacky, the new owners are allowed to make any new building. The witty dialogue is riveting, raw, and real, as the marvelous cast shows us the prejudices still lurking below the surface, demonstrating with humor and candid transparency that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
“Clybourne Park” runs Thursday–Sunday through Jan. 25 at 6th Street Playhouse. 6thstreetplayhouse.com