Clybourne Park: Race Against Real Estate, But Hey, Kind of Funny

Clybourne Park, the winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play, tackles the question of race right where we live.

We get to see not only whites reacting badly to the prospect of having black neighbors, but decades later, blacks arguing against whites gentrifying what has become their neighborhood in the intervening years.

James Black, who once again is directing for the Alley Theatre, acknowledges how discussion of race can make audiences uncomfortable, but says: "It generates a tense, prickly, uncomfortable kind of laughter. My favorite kind. But I also find it profoundly moving."

Bruce Norris's play, which also won an Olivier Award for Best Play, opens tonight at the Alley. It's a spinoff of Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, borrowing a few characters from it, and covers two generations separated by 50 years. Jeffrey Bean and Elizabeth Bunch play Russ and Bev, the couple about to sell their house to a black family in 1959. The black family turns out to be the Youngers, the central family in A Raisin in the Sun. And Karl Lindner, a minor character in Raisin, walks on stage in this play.

In Act II, we're in 2009 and a white couple, accompanied by a descendant of the family that moved out of the neighborhood in 1959, is trying to buy the house with the intent of tearing it down. Because of housing ordinances, they must deal with a black couple representing the neighborhood organization and it turns out the wife in that couple is related to the couple that bought the house from Russ and Bev.

Everyone starts out nice and polite, but tact is soon overcome by hostility and different expectations and nastiness ensures.

Actors play dual roles in the production. Bean returns in the second act as Dan, Bunch as Kathy. Emily Neves plays Betsy/Lindsey, David Rainey is Albert/Kevin and Jay Sullivan triples as Jim/Tom/Kenneth. Alley veteran Philip Lehl returns as Karl/Steve and Libya V. Pugh makes her Alley debut.

"I've been an admirer of this amazing work since I first read it," Black said. "I love its theatricality, its structure, the double casting between the acts, its reference to another great play. Because of that, it is a story that demands to be told in a theater. It can't exist in another medium. A rarity in modern playwriting."

He also points out that although the play is set in Chicago, "its themes of a pre- and supposed post-racial world resonate on a universal level." And, as he said, "Although set in Chicago, the play first received international acclaim with an award winning production in London."

'As soon as I read it I knew it was a great fit for our acting company," Black said. "It's a true ensemble piece that demands everything from the actors. There aren't big plot twists or elaborate technical thrills, it's people in a living room communicating. Or rather, trying to." Clybourne Park opens Wednesday, January 23, and runs through Sunday, February 17, 2013 on the Neuhaus Stage at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue. For information call 713.220.5700 or visit the theater's website.

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