Bruce Norris’s 2010 satire was written as a response to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and, like that American classic, examines interracial tensions though the prism of property ownership.
It begins in 1959, the year Hansberry’s play premiered, and is also set in Chicago, but here we are taken inside a household in the eponymous upmarket white enclave, whose residents raise qualms when they discover a black family is about to move in.
“The history of America is the history of private property,” says Karl, and his words foreshadow the second half, 50 years on, in which the scenario is inverted; Clybourne Park is now predominantly black, with a petition against a white couple moving into the neighbourhood.
Much garlanded at its premiere, winning both a Tony and a Pulitzer, the drama still feels fresh for its connecting threads, which link race, land, upward mobility and the politics of gentrification. Sleekly directed by Oliver Kaderbhai, the cast – strong across the board– helps to construct and dismantle James Turner’s set in clever choreography that mirrors themes of homebuilding and historical change.
But it is a play of two halves, both in structure and effect, as it sets up a deeply moving and complex drama in its first part that feels as if it is leading to an explosive second, yet does not quite deliver emotional or intellectual depth. Nevertheless, the satire stays sharp and there are many points of provocation.
There is, in the first household, the sugary Bev (Imogen Stubbs) who speaks of her maid Francine (Aliyah Odoffin) as a “friend” but displays blind entitlement. Satirised deftly, she could easily be reborn as Reese Witherspoon’s guilty white wife in Little Fires Everywhere. Bev and her husband, Russ (Richard Lintern), are mourning the death of their son, who killed himself after committing atrocities in the Korean war, and their grief gives them humanity so that the satire never feels reductive.
Tension builds slowly alongside spiky comedy as the outrightly racist Karl (Andrew Langtree, full of weasly zeal) enters the scene, along with Francine’s husband, Albert (Eric Underwood). This latter black couple emanate silent dignity, and disgust, as they watch this fulminating household fight over the prospect of black neighbours – and falling house prices.
The second half is flatter, becoming a verbal battle in which a racist and homophobic joke is deconstructed for its offence; a white liberal character, Lindsay (Katie Matsell), insists half her friends are black, though she can only name one; and a black resident, Lena (Odoffin), tells her own anti-white joke. None of it penetrates very deeply and, plot-wise, it feels anticlimatic when a buried box is eventually unearthed and dragged on to the stage and gives us sentimentality rather than revelation or resolution. It is a missed opportunity, and not nearly as shocking or impactful as Branden Jacob-Jenkins’s gothic satire Appropriate, which also deals in white American history and its connection to property.
The cast, however, is little short of magnificent, and the actors bring every last offensive joke, inanity and quieter moment alive.