Stage Struck Review

Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years

Looking Back With Disquiet: “Clybourne Park” at the Taper

(L to R) Damon Gupton, Crystal A. Dickinson, Annie Parisse and Jeremy Shamos in the Mark Taper Forum's Clybourne Park

One of the seminal plays of the civil rights era was Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” detailing – among other things – the struggle of the Youngers, an African American family in Chicago, to leave their downtrodden neighborhood. At the end, they pack up despite objections from their new white neighbors, and head for the middle class enclave of Clybourne Park.

Playwright Bruce Norris’ modern response to Hansberry’s tale, “Clybourne Park” brings to the Mark Taper Forum an examination of both the changes fifty years have brought in attitudes, and the underlying tensions of property, history and sheer insensitivity which still divide. In the process the play proves uncomfortable, funny, touching, explosive and richly challenging. It can be both humorous and disquieting to acknowledge the social tensions liberal America tends to feel have evaporated which have, rather, gone underground.

The first act looks at the Hansberry story from the other side, as we meet the family moving out so the Youngers can move in. Russ and Bev are packing up to leave, unable to cope with events which have taken place in the house. Their maid helps them pack and copes with the obvious lack of understanding her employers have about her life – a life she keeps so intentionally separate she is upset at her husband’s willingness to volunteer help in the labor involved with emptying a house. Soon the family is joined by the vapid but ineffectual local minister, and by Karl – the Hansberry character who tried to talk the Youngers out of buying in this neighborhood – now trying to talk Russ out of selling to an African American, even as he hovers over his own pregnant, deaf wife.

The second act, fifty years later, revisits the now derelict house, which Lindsey and Steve intend to tear down in order to build a new one in this gentrifying, formerly African American neighborhood. In a meeting involving development agency and architectural representatives, the authors of a neighborhood committee bent on preservation, including a Younger relative, face off over yet another potential change, all the while construction workers unearth essential facts of the house nobody may ever care to see.

The joy of this play is the crafted humanity of its characters. Each is trying to be nice to the other. Each is dealing with pent frustrations which bubble over in ways they neither expect nor can control. Yet, you end up in sympathy with them all, even those whose dated ideas or Starbucks liberalism prove deeply, spiritually out of tune.

The cast, which doubles in the 1959 and 2009 parts, provides a striking ensemble. Director Pam MacKinnon has created a community on the stage for each act, with the kind of careful timing which seems totally natural even as it is pinpoint precise. Frank Wood and Christina Kirk’s interplay as Russ and Bev swell with the underlying emotional struggle of leaving difficult history, and one’s sense of belonging, behind. Jeremy Shamos gives both the vibratingly anxious Karl and the earnestly myopic yuppie Steve such independent individuality it is sometimes difficult to believe they are played by the same person.

Crystal A. Dickinson brings practical dignity to the maid surrounded by the casual racism of an age, and an intensity of purpose to the young woman determined to do what she can to save her own heritage. Likewise, Damon Gupton gives the servant’s amiable husband a kind of relaxed dignity in the face of a stratified society, and his more modern counterpart a quietly suspicious sense of self.

Brendan Griffin offers up the more vapid characters: the minister who has no idea how to salve the deep wounds which are making Russ and Bev leave, and the detached planner focused on contracts while the meeting around him explodes. Annie Parisse also provides two characters of such distinct individualism it is startling to think they are performed by the same person, as first the deaf woman isolated from her rather clueless neighbors and then as the young woman profoundly excited to revitalize a run-down neighborhood.

Daniel Ostling’s evocative set works wonderfully, down to just the right period wallpaper. Ilona Somogyi’s terrific costumes provide an instant telegraph of period and relationship which speeds understanding and enriches the whole.

“Clybourne Park” will not be the easiest play you will see, but perhaps the most telling. You may laugh, or you may gasp as one after another the cherished assumptions about another age and about our own are taken out and examined with a microscope. Interestingly, this may play best when examined next to the Hansberry original. A fine production of “A Raisin in the Sun” is playing at the Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City with just that juxtaposition in mind. Savor both, and then take your friends out to dinner and let the discussions begin.

What: “Clybourne Park” When: Through February 26, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or

2 responses to “Looking Back With Disquiet: “Clybourne Park” at the Taper

  1. Prasad November 20, 2012 at 12:28 AM

    There was a PBS documentary on in the 90s. One of the pelope was a well educated guy from North Carolina who wanted to do a history on his town, or something like that. He was interviewing a black lady perhaps in her 40s, who sounded educated but was a not a “professional” or acadamic, that I can recall–which may be why she could be honest. She very pleasantly and with no particular rancor, gave an account of her family, the town, general relations between the races, etc. She sounded perfectly normal and lucid, not hiding any sort of rage, and the account she gave was of pelope who got on with their lives, didn’t mix much but behaved well towards each other, and also there was much less actual segregation than is commonly supposed. The white guy cracked me up though–a few times he tried to get the woman to say how angry or hurt or oppressed–can’t recall the exact vocabulary, but words to that effect–she and other blacks must have been. She actually looked a little askance at him, and assured him she was telling things as they were and not leaving out any grisly details. He really seemed to want to hear some. Perhaps he just wanted everything out in the open and really didn’t know. Now I think his family had been slave owners back in the day, but even in the 1990s, that would not have involved any living persons.

    • Muhammed February 22, 2013 at 6:38 AM

      I spent my twenty years in NortheastDC and I don’t relacl a lot of Black Rage going on. I think Black Rage is what Naive White People are schooled to expect in their liberal arts classes and their major media consumption. “It is the twenty third and a quarter anniversay of the Bimingham sit ins.”God forbid the Naive White People actually live in a neighborhood where people literally crap on your front step, back step and …gasp…roof, all slightly out of direct sight places. I don’t think it was done out of Rage, that is complimenting acts like these with too much thought, I think it was just expeditious.Black Rage only comes into play when more educated Blacks perceive an amenable, Nevillian(the appeaser Neville Chamberlain) audience. If you are well dressed white person and strive mightily not to make eye contact you are a good candidate for becoming a Black Rage audience member.And then the more you clap and approve publicly(making a Big show out of cringing appeasement),i.e. the more you grovel like a wiggly white worm, the higher you rise in white social status.

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