I doubt that George Zimmerman will ever see Clybourne Park on Broadway. The man who killed Trayvon Martin is busy defending himself against second-degree murder charges in Florida, and scoring tickets to the 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner is probably not high on his to-do list. Still, he might benefit from Bruce Norris’s acid, bracing diptypch about prejudice and neighborliness, perhaps even recognize the play’s society, corroded by what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” Clybourne Park is a powerful work about closed communities, exclusion and dehumanization of the other. Wartime atrocities slouch in the background. It’s also shockingly funny, and I suspect that at this point, Zimmerman could use a good laugh.
In the two years since this outstanding drama premiered at Playwrights Horizons, the performances of the original cast members have gotten richer and more authentic. Pam MacKinnon’s staging—tightly paced and alert to the most minute of emotional shifts—is simply the best this text could receive (and that’s counting the excellent 2010 Royal Court production in London). The married couples seem more intimate; the absence of a dead son hurts more; the shame of casual 1950s racism is viler; and the visceral awkwardness of Jeremy Shamos’s two characters (one with a more nasally Chicago twang) is even more perfectly squirmworthy.
For his premise, Norris riffs on Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, appropriating that work’s incidental white character, Karl Lindner, the man who tries to bribe the Younger family, so they won’t move into the all-white Clybourne Park community in 1959. Married couple Russ (Frank Wood) and Bev (Christina Kirk) are packing up and moving to the suburbs, and their breezy banter about nomenclature for inhabitants of various cities can’t cover up a certain tension. The local minister (Brendan Griffin) arrives and clues us in to the mysterious death of Russ and Bev’s ex-soldier son, who’d fought in Korea. Karl shows up to plead with Russ to reconsider selling the house and letting the community slide into inevitable white flight. The ensuing squabbling is observed with understandable disdain and horror by black couple Francine (Crystal A. Dickinson) and Albert (Damon Gupton).
After intermission, we jump ahead half a century. It’s 2009, there’s a black man in the Oval Office, and a white couple (Shamos and Annie Parisse) wants to move into that same house. Only this time, they meet resistance from locals because the renovated house they have proposed is tacky and also ignores the neighborhood’s history. Politically correct, postracial politeness eventually devolves into raucous bickering and ethnic-joke slinging. The resulting moral morass is hilarious and ugly at the same time.
There’s more here than a sermon about loving thy neighbor or taking a “brave” stand against racism. Norris doesn’t seem sure that people will do the right thing. Nevertheless, Clybourne Park is not a sour or cheaply pessimistic piece; and the clipped, overlapping dialogue is darkly, irrepressibly funny. It’s that delicate ambivalence, that dense knot of human frailty and unknowability—Norris’s forté—that would probably sail right over George Zimmerman’s head.—David Cote
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