“Clybourne Park” at the SpeakEasy Stage Company

White flight was bad.  Gentrification is good.  Right?

The two acts of Bruce Norris’s Tony Award winning play Clybourne Park at the SpeakEasy Stage Company through March 30, examine how one house in the fictional Clybourne Park neighborhood of Chicago is affected by white flight in 1959 and then gentrification in 2009.

It’s a house that should actually be pretty familiar to many. It’s the one Lorraine Hansberry’s Younger family buys in A Raisin in the Sun.

What Norris does in Clybourne Park is shift our focus, first from the poverty of the Younger’s to the earnestness of the white family who sells to them. And then, fifty years later, we shift again to the young white family who has bought the house in a now predominately black neighborhood with plans to tear it down and build a larger one.

Paula Plum. Philana Mia, Michael Kaye, Marvelyn McFarlane, DeLance Minefee, and Tim Spears in a scene from SpeakEasy Stage's production of Clybourne Park. Photo by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

Norris is notorious for rejecting “poverty tourism” where affluent white audiences entertain themselves by gawking at the condition of poor black people, favoring instead to shine a light on the neuroses of the self-identifying progressives who are the mainstay of theatre audiences.

In this way we feel the overt racism in the first act (I’ve heard stories that my grandfather once participated in a plan to buy a house in order to block its sale to a black family) and contrast it with the subtle self-censoring of the second.  Karl Lindner’s argument for blocking the sale in 1959 is explicitly economic (house values will plummet) and racist (because a black family will live next door).  And in the second act, while the jokes are more obscene the arguments are more veiled: what makes the neighborhood desirable is its community.

(Those involved in the reimagining of Salem’s Point neighborhood might take from here a valuable semantics lesson: when we talk about “potential” and “progress” do we really mean a future without its current residents?)

There’s plenty of mirroring between the two acts, as they share a cast, providing ample opportunity to compare and contrast the generational perspectives.

The skeletal, framework set, too, which doesn’t change between acts except for superficial trim work makes it clear that these families share one fundamental story in one house, the only differences are superficial.

After you see Clybourne Park you might want to see even more of that story and take advantage of the programming opportunity being offered by the SpeakEasy’s sister company The Huntington which will be staging A Raisin in the Sun through April 7.


“Clybourne Park”
March 1 – 30, 2013
by Bruce Norris
Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara
Tickets available at speakeasystage.com

Jonathan Simcosky blogs at jonathansimcosky.com

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