Cripple Creek’s current production of “Clybourne Park” at the Shadowbox Theatre in New Orleans is technically flawless. Seven actors create fifteen humans onstage, each believable and heartrending. Francesca McKenzie’s direction created a tight, clear and suspenseful drama onstage. The sets and costumes and technical direction all disappeared—as they are meant to—behind the magic of the theater.
And it is magic. There is something so profound in the mere flicker of lights. The darkness that precedes and follows each act works its spell on the audience, turning a packed house of regular people on a Friday night into absolute revelers.
The interesting questions begin when one approaches this production of “Clybourne Park” not only as art, but as a political act. In her director’s note, McKenzie says, “Cripple Creek’s mission is to create works of relevance in order to provoke social action.”
The dramaturg’s note goes farther. Rachel Lee says:
The play has succeeded commercially and critically because it capitalizes on the feeling of danger that accompanies frank cross-racial conversations about race. “Clybourne Park” is a frank play about race that was written by a white man and based on a famous work by an African-American woman (Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun”). For a conversation about race to truly be dangerous, it must produce a tear, however small, in the fabric of white supremacy. I don’t think “Clybourne Park” quite does this on on its own, there is too much left unsaid, but it does point towards some realities of racism and white supremacy that push us closer to these dangerous conversations.
“Clybourne Park” is largely about whiteness. The play is divided into two one-hour acts. The first act takes place in Chicago in 1959, in the living room of Russ and Bev. Russ and Bev have recently sold their house, and the moving truck is coming on Monday. Their maid, Francine, is working on a Saturday and silently counting down the days until she’s done with these people. Russ and Bev’s minister, Jim, comes over to talk to Russ, because Bev worries that Russ is depressed. Then Karl and Betsy, a couple from the neighborhood, come by, to tell Russ and Bev that their home is being sold to a “colored family.” Francine’s husband, Albert, comes to pick her up, and the black couple gets pulled into several uncomfortable conversations and minor transactions.
(A quick note here to praise Monica R. Harris and Martin Bradford, whose wordless reactions and general carriage created full-rounded characters with sparse dialogue.)
I once watched an interview with a stage actor who had moved to film, and he talked about how he scaled his acting down for the camera. Theater must be, at its heart, oversized. Actors must project their voices, even when they are pretending to whisper. Their tics—like the small, exact movements that lent a sense of nervousness and circumspection to Karl—help to create a cohesive character, someone sticky that the audience will remember.
Whiteness is what’s examined in “Clybourne Park,” and whiteness is oversized, from Bev’s well-meaning nervousness to Lindsey’s overwhelming desire to be liked (Act II).
Act II takes place inside the same home in 2009, only now that home has been gutted and graffiti-ed. A white couple, Lindsey and Steve, are sitting in a meeting with their black neighbors-to-be, Lena and Kevin, plus each side’s lawyer. The six sit on folding beach chairs and whatever else is handy as they go though a petition that limits the renovations Lindsey and Steve can do on their house.
In fifty years, little has changed about the interaction between races. Lena and Kevin aren’t much more assertive than Francine and Albert were. Lena still has to modulate her speech to be “polite” and “friendly.” The white characters—particularly Lindsey and Steve, plus their lawyer, Kathy—are nearly louts. They are brash, they interrupt, they talk endlessly about the minutiae of their thoughts and then apologize with a big, brassy smile. For the first part of the act, they seem to labor under the delusion that this is “friendliness.”
In her book “Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work,” Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat writes about the purpose of art in oppressive society:
After the executions of Marcel Numa and Louis Drouin, as the images of their deaths played over and over in cinema and on state-run television, the young men and women of the Club de Bonne Humeur, along with the rest of Haiti, desperately needed art that could convince them that they would not die the same way Numa and Drouin did. They needed to be convinced that words could still be spoken, that stories could still be told and passed on. So, as my father used to tell it, these young people donned white sheets as togas and they tried to stage Camus’ play—quietly, quietly—in many of their houses, where they whispered lines like “Execution relieves and liberates. It is a universal tonic, just in precept as in practice. A man dies because he is guilty. A man is guilty because he is one of Caligula’s subjects. Ergo all men are guilty and shall die. It is only a matter of time and patience.”
The legend of the underground staging of this and other plays, clandestine readings of pieces of literature, was so strong that years after Papa Doc Duvalier died, every time there was a political murder in Bel Air, one of the young aspiring intellectuals in the neighborhood where I spent the first twelve years of my life might inevitably say that someone should put on a play.
This is an impossibly high standard to put on drama, but it is how Danticat keeps herself honest. She says, “Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously. This is what I’ve always thought it meant to be a writer.”
For all the praise that I can heap on Cripple Creek’s “Clybourne Park”—the otherworldly acting, the staging, the professionalism, the book-like program that tries to fill in the blanks of the story and the institutions that shaped the racially divided housing market in the United States—I can’t bring myself to call it dangerous.
But it’s a hell of a show. Despite the serious implications of the play, and the explicit desire of the theater company to create social action, it is also a joyful, thrilling way to spend an evening. It is not “being forced to eat your vegetables,” unless, like me, you think that vegetables are freaking delicious.
I wholeheartedly recommend “Clybourne Park,” which continues at the Shadowbox Theatre through June 23. For further reading on the racial divide in fair housing, I also recommend reading more by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Although I don’t mention each by name, I was awed by all the actors, who brought true humanity to their roles.