Actors performing in Clybourne Park
Feature

‘Clybourne Park’ Draws Question: Whose Story Is It?

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‘Clybourne Park’ grapples with issues of identity, community.

As politicians seek to define and appeal to different communities this election season, making generalizations, statements and assumptions about diverse groups of people, the Theatre Department’s timely production of Clybourne Park brought to the campus stage many of the ideological conflicts we see playing out on the national one.

While the play’s themes are not party-political, they do grapple with issues of group identity, racism and prejudice, belonging and exclusion, and how exactly we define community.

“Theatre has a responsibility to ask the tough questions,” Director and Professor of Theatre Ann Marie Costa says.

Fracturing Facades

The veneer of political correctness often stifles meaningful, open discussion about sensitive topics, Costa says, and it is in this space—between what people say and what they think—that theatre plays a critical role.

“As professors at Davidson, one of our key roles is to teach students how to think critically about a topic with supporting data, research and then draw a conclusion,” Costa says. “By directing this play, I am asking at Davidson how do we do that honestly and openly when examining the tensions between the majority and the marginalized in America?”

For the April production, Costa sought a piece that would challenge people—or more accurately, one that would ask people to challenge themselves to examine their own biases, assumptions and worldviews. And in Clybourne Park, she found just that.

The show is a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that debuted in 2010 as a sort of spinoff to the lauded 1959 Broadway play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. In it, playwright Bruce Norris imagines events that might have preceded and followed those in Hansberry’s play, telling the story of a Chicago neighborhood over the span of 50 years.

The play is set in one home, inhabited in Act 1 by a middle-class white family in

An actor in Clybourne Park
(photo: Bill Giduz)

the late 1950s. The husband and wife aim to sell their house, and when a black family (the Youngers, from A Raisin in the Sun) shows interest in buying, neighbors and community members try to convince the white couple—in disgraceful ways—not to sell to them, worried about what it would mean for the neighborhood. In Act 2, the same actors appear playing different characters, and 50 years have passed. Clybourne Park is now a black neighborhood undergoing gentrification, and a white couple is looking to buy and renovate the house.

The premise alone is not what makes the play timely, as these topics—gentrification, racism, fear of those who are different—are not new. Rather, it is the way in which the characters are written and the nature of the dialogue, as well as the assertion of how far we haven’t come, that sparked meaningful discussion and drew mixed reactions from campus audiences.

Tough Questions

The cast and crew of Clybourne Park found themselves asking whether a white playwright can accurately write black characters.

Fans of Norris’ work have called it “damningly insightful,” “a powerful work” with “memorable characters.” Reviewers have praised his wit and perception/portrayal of races and classes and the tensions that exist among them. In fact, in addition to its Pulitzer, the play also won a Tony award for best play and the Oliver Prize for best new play.

But such praise is confusing to Kanise Thompson ’17, a theatre major who served as dramaturg and stage manager for the production. In fact, the more she researched the history and studied the play, she more she grew to dislike it.

“A lot of things that happened in the show would not have happened in real life,” says Thompson, who is black. She rejects the idea that the play was in some way groundbreaking in 2010 when it debuted, as, she says, “racial tension was not a new concept then.”

“The story told is not a complete one”—far from it, she avers—and she believes it is in large part because the playwright was unable to fully understand the story he was attempting to tell.

Telling the Right Story

“There’s a huge issue with a white man writing black characters,” Thompson says.

She considers Clybourne Park in stark contrast to A Raisin in the Sun, the latter having been written by a black woman and duly hailed as one of the first realistic theatre portrayals of an African-American family.

Costa agrees that Norris’ characters are written more as racial tropes than as three-dimensional beings, and the dialogue is stark, blunt and often bigoted. But, she sees value in that as a device for building awareness and sparking social change.

“It’s tapping into biases and prejudices that still exist in many communities,” Costa says. “Through the lens of a white male, it asks, ‘how far have we come?’ and the answer isn’t a positive one. There is real value in engaging a community in dialogue about just what it means to be a part of a community.”

By watching Norris’ characters interact and listening to their dialogue, audience members may be forced to admit things about their own worldviews that may make them uncomfortable.

Actors in a scene of Clybourne Park
(photo: Bill Giduz)

Telling the Story Right

“The characters say exactly what they feel and think,” Costa says, and much of the dialogue is “cringe-worthy,” as Thompson puts it. Still, she was drawn to the role of dramaturg because “it gave me some measure of control over how the actors approached playing the characters,” she says.

“I was able to talk with them about the history and trends that lead up to modern day; to make the actors aware of the significance of what happens in the play,” Thompson says. “There’s so much history that’s touched on in the play, but you don’t get the whole background.”

Thompson did extensive research on 1950s Chicago, exploring such diverse topics as race relations, real estate/blockbusting trends, the ways in which people with disabilities were treated (there is a hearing impaired character in the play), and society’s treatment of “others.”

“I’m so glad Ann Marie gave me the chance to work with the actors in this way and share with them this information,” Thompson says, “so I could ensure the characters were played as respectfully as possible.”

“I hope we don’t get to a place where artists can’t write characters or tell stories of their choosing,” Costa says, “as long as they feel the responsibility to do it right.”

The collaboration between Costa as director and Thompson as dramaturg resulted in thoughtful, informed acting and staging decisions and a performance both are proud of.

“I think it was a great production,” Thompson says, and was pleased to see the ways in which aspects of the play she initially found problematic sparked productive conversation on campus. She and Costa both hope that the Theatre Department continues to seek out productions that foster difficult conversation, and ideally, incite activism and social change.

It was theatre’s unique power to tackle tough questions, tell tough stories and cause social movement that drew Thompson to theatre as a major, and why she plans to pursue it as a career.

“You can do so much with theatre—you can entertain people, you can make them happy, you can tap into places they don’t go often, and you can tell people’s stories in the ways they were meant to be told,” she says. “I guess the better question is, what can’t you do with theatre?”

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