by Dalt Wonk
Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park is a full-throttle drama getting a full-throttle treatment in its regional premiere at the Shadowbox Theatre. It’s about housing and racial issues, and the script is both subtle and full of surprises. Under the direction of Francesca McKenzie, a compelling cast brings the bizarre story vividly to life.
Playwright Bruce Norris picks up on the conflicts in Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 classic A Raisin in the Sun, about a black family moving to a white neighborhood in Chicago. Act 1 of Clybourne Park revisits the Rasin story from the perspectives of white residents battling over the makeup of the neighborhood.
The bigotry aimed at keeping African Americans out of the neighborhood is not overcome by liberal impulses, it’s scorched by an unrelated emotional volcano. Middle-aged, middle-class Bev and Russ are packing to move. Russ (Jackson Townsend) is acerbic; his wife Bev (Mary Pauley), a nervous wreck. We learn later that Russ has been petulant since their son Ken returned from the Korean War and hanged himself.
Norris moves with grace between comic traceries of small talk and a lava flow of emotions. Francine (Monica R. Harris), who is black, works as a maid and she and her husband Albert (Martin Bradford) stoically endure condescending white employers.
A clueless minister (Dylan Hunter) pays a call. So does neighbor Karl (Ian Hoch) and his deaf, pregnant wife Betsy (Emilie Whelan). The character Karl appeared in Raisin, where he tried to bribe the black family not to move into this white neighborhood. He is head of the neighborhood society and informs Russ that the buyers of the house are black. He pressures Russ to break the deal, telling him property values will fall if black people move into the neighborhood. Amid growing anger and confusion, Karl asks the maid and her husband what they think. An infuriated Russ responds, dredging up past personal conflicts with his neighbor.
Act 2 takes place in the same location, but in 2009. Karl’s predictions — judging by Adam Tourek’s set — were surpassed. The house is a rundown, litter-strewn tenement covered with graffiti. A new neighborhood committee is meeting to evaluate the plans of potential new buyers of the place. This group is interracial and includes members related to the characters from the first act — played by the same actors. The community has become predominantly African-American, and there’s speculation that low housing prices could attract new residents. A white family wants to buy the house, and residents fear the onset of gentrification.
Norris balances droll rejoinders with the touchy subject of race, and Cripple Creek Theatre Company gives Clybourne Park a masterful outing. Don’t miss it.
Thru June 23
8 p.m. Fri.-Sun.
Shadowbox Theatre, 2400 St. Claude Ave., (504) 298-8676www.theshadowboxtheatre.com