Weathervane Playhouse, in its production of Bruce Norris’ critically acclaimed ‘Clybourne Park,’ offers a sort-of prequel and sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play, ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’ The play is the winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play.
It had been awhile since I had seen ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ so I wondered if I would have trouble following it, but while the connections are there, ‘Clybourne Park’ is an excellent stand-alone play.
The action takes place in the living room of a house. Act One is sort of a prequel to ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ and is set in the 1960’s. It gives the audience a fly-on-the-wall view as community leaders try to stop a white couple from selling their home in an all-white neighborhood to a black family.
During the first fifteen minutes or so of the production, I struggled with a few of the characters. Moriah Lynn’s portrayal of white housewife Bev was annoyingly over-the-top. Richard Worswick, as Bev’s husband Russ, came off as manic, angry, and barely able to tolerate Bev. I did not think I was going to like them. I was wrong.
As the story unfolds, the audience learns about Bev and Russ’s tragic loss and we realize that their actions are not the result of exaggerated acting, but rather reflect the characters’ grief and their desperate attempt to go on in the face of crushing loss. Suddenly, what had first seemed over-the-top begins to seems nuanced and poignant.
Keeya Chapman-Langford played black maid Francine, whose last duty for her employers was to help them pack their belongings. Chapman-Langford’s take on Francine was subtle and spot-on.
When some neighbors and their pastor come for a visit, the ugliness of racism comes with them. Pastor Jim, played by Scott Crim, stops in. He is followed by Karl, played by Craig Joseph, and his wife Betsy, portrayed by Allison Kump. Francine’s husband, Albert, played by Tyson Sebree, arrives to pick her up from work and is drawn in to the drama.
Joseph’s Karl is nervous and alarmist. He informs Bev and Russ that the family who bought their house is “colored.” He insipidly attempts to convince the group that his concern is only about property values and safety, but as the conversation grows heated, Karl’s hate speech becomes more blatant.
He attempts to convince Francine and Albert, who are not at all interested in living in Clybourne Park, that they wouldn’t want to live nearby. When he suggests the neighborhood grocery store probably wouldn’t have “their kind” of food, Albert sarcastically responded, “Do they have collards and pigs feet? I can’t shop nowhere that that don’t have collard greens and pigs feet!”
Karl’s words become menacing as he reveals that community residents have pooled their resources to halt the sale and purchase the house themselves in an effort to protect the neighborhood. When Bev and Russ fail to jump on his racist bandwagon, Karl threatens to tell the buyers about the tragic events that led Bev and Russ want to sell their home and move away.
During intermission, my friend Deborah Dockery, who accompanied me to the play, discussed what we had seen so far, and we were both touched by the same element of the play, the silver chafing dish. As Bev and Francine pack Bev’s possessions, Bev is determined to give Francine her silver chafing dish, something she says she no longer needs because she no longer entertains. Francine politely refuses again and again, but Bev insists. The women comically unpack and repack the dish throughout Act One. The chafing dish comes to represent Bev’s need to shed the memories of her life “before.” As for Francine, the silver dish seems to represent a world that is not hers and a life that will never exist for a black maid in the 1960’s. My friend said it best, “That chafing dish is a metaphor for grief and for white privilege.”
Act Two takes us to the living room of same house in the present day. Residents of the now predominantly black neighborhood battle to hold onto their community in the face of gentrification. The same actors portray different characters.
Chapman-Langford and Sebree portray Lena and Kevin, a black couple currently living in the neighborhood and representing the housing board. Lena’s family purchased the house from Bev and Russ in Act One. The contrast between Act One’s Francine and Albert and Act Two’s Lena and Kevin told a story of its own. Chapman-Langford and Sebree insightfully capture the feelings of anger and frustration that accompany their struggle for equality and the weariness that comes with a lifetime of living on the receiving end of racism.
Crim plays Tom, their lawyer. Tom, as a gay man, has an understanding of what it is to face discrimination.
Kump and Joseph play Lindsey and Steve, a young, white, upwardly mobile couple expecting a baby. The pair plans to demolish the house and rebuild a larger one. The actors did an excellent job of portraying a couple who like to think they are progressive but, in fact, are doing their best to avoid looking in the mirror and seeing their own bias and privilege. Lindsey talking about how many black friends she has and Steve suggesting that he is a victim of reverse racism were both cringe-worthy moments.
Lynn plays Lindsey and Steve’s attorney Kathy, the daughter of Karl and Betsy from Act One. Kathy reveals that Karl and Betsy moved out of the neighborhood when she was born.
When Steve tells a racist, homophobic joke, tempers flare and the meeting disintegrates into a shouting match. The meeting ends and everyone leaves without resolution. The two “sides” are even further apart than before.
Weathervane offers the following audience advisory: The play contains adult language and frank discussions of race and class. It is best enjoyed by audiences ages 13 and older.
‘Clybourne Park’ continues its run through Jan. 31. Tickets are $22 for adults, $10 for children (17 and younger), and $11 for college students. Senior discounts are available on Thursdays and for matinees for $20. Tickets can be purchased at www.weathervaneplayhouse.com or by calling the box office at (330) 836-2626.