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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 http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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