Monday, October 31, 2011

What we talk about when we talk about what we talk about when we talk about race

The talented cast of Trinity's Clybourne Park.
I've been dragging my feet over writing up a response to Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park (through November 20 at Trinity Rep) and Hub Review readers know that means only one thing - I'm conflicted about it.

Not about the production, mind you; under the carefully balanced direction of Brian Mertes, the crack ensemble down at Trinity has served the play well, with particularly incisive turns from company stalwarts Timothy Crowe, Anne Scurria, and Rachael Warren.  I had issues with Eugene Lee's conceptual set (or lack thereof), as well as a few other minor details, but looking over our current theatrical landscape it's clear that Clybourne Park is right now the must-see show in New England.

Still, if you leave the production with doubts about the play itself, despite the brilliance of its performance - well then let's talk.  Because this 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner troubles me a little, both politically and artistically.  Not that I'm questioning its Pulitzer, not really - after all, a lot of plays have won the Pulitzer, and in its complexity and ambition Clybourne Park certainly meets the standards of the middle range of that august company.  And politically, its playwright's goals - to extend and explore the themes of an earlier Pulitzer-winner, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun - are laudable; in fact they bulls-eye the post-liberal mindset of the Pulitzer crowd (i.e., the aging editors of the American press).  And in sheer dramaturgical terms, Clybourne certainly marks a huge step up in maturity for its playwright (the last Norris work we saw in Boston was the far snarkier The Pain and the Itch).

Yet the play always feels consciously constructed.  Its craft is not the craft of the true artist, working through his or her own inner conflicts, but rather a very intelligent wannabe's artful simulation of same. In its first half, set in the late 50's - the time of Raisin's Broadway debut -  Clybourne offers a gloss on the works of Edward Albee, and for its second half, set in the millennium, it proffers a familiar skit from Saturday Night Live.  So nothing in it feels fresh or new; and it's hard to fight the feeling, as the play moves toward its conclusion, that its author has begun to bob and weave, the better to dodge the claims of actual, up-to-the-minute cultural analysis one would expect from a major work.  In the end, the script feels most like a hipster's nostalgia piece, its seeming savagery encased in a witty, knowing distance; and I began to wonder - is Clybourne merely a jukebox play of the highest order, built by assembling - in a clever new arrangement - received cultural artifacts, just as one might assemble the parts of an "ironic" piece of decor purchased from IKEA?

Which perhaps raises a deeper question: our theatrical culture seems obsessed with race these days - in Boston, we have a whole theatre company pretty much devoted to it.  And yet the constant churn of new plays on the topic - The Mountaintop, Stick Fly, even David Mamet's silly old Race - doesn't seem to be leaving much of a mark on the discourse.  It has simply become a new kind of background buzz - in part, perhaps, because there's never a raw new vision on offer, not of the kind that could actually make the rest of the culture take notice; we never feel our supposed "dialogue" on race actually lurch forward as it once did (on occasion) because of a new play.

And so I've begun to wonder - could it be that "race" is written out?

Absurd!, I know, most politically-correct playgoers will cry - because there's still so much political work to be done on equality in America.  But does that mean there's an equivalent amount of artistic work to be done?  That's by no means clear - particularly when our latest, greatest, Pulitzer-Prize-winning meditation on the topic turns out to be a piece of complicated cultural ventriloquism.  One reviewer described Clybourne Park as being about "what we talk about when we talk about race."  But really, it's more like "what we talk about when we talk about what we talk about when we talk about race."  And how many more prepositional clauses and ironic distance can one dialogue withstand?

A comparison to Clybourne's inspiration, A Raisin in the Sun, seems pertinent at this point.  Lorraine Hansberry's breakout play was a barely-veiled testament to her family's efforts to cross the color line in Chicago, and buy the property at left, 6140 S. Rhodes Avenue (it now has landmark status as the Lorraine Hansberry House; perhaps the Trinity production's single major mistake is to back away from any evocation of its reality).

Back in the day, Raisin drew its authority not only from a realistic set, but from realistic acting, too; an appropriate approach, as the script operated almost as straight reportage - although it stopped far short of the chilling reality its author endured. To hang onto their new home, the Hansberries had to take their fight against housing covenants all the way to the Supreme Court, where they finally won their case - but their struggle was far from over.  Angry white mobs gathered outside their front door to hoot and jeer; chunks of cement were thrown through their windows; Hansberry told interviewers that her mother took to carrying a loaded pistol.  The harassment lasted for years.

This mortifying history may be one explanation for the almost hysterical adulation which has greeted Clybourne Park, particularly in Chicago itself, where critic Chris Jones applauded Norris for "peeling the racial onion down to its fetid core" and exposing the "fevered, dysfunctional souls" of its white characters.  Other reviewers went further: the play depicted "a molten avalanche of soul-searing ugliness," wailed one, who shuddered that "the oily, white-male entitlement" of its villains would make you "want to take a shower after shaking their hands."

Uh-huh.  This kind of hand-wringing (of the "Eek!  Human EVIL!!" variety) never impresses me much, particularly when it comes from white people.  Or at least it doesn't impress me the way Hansberry's sturdy, straightforward, heart-breaking dramaturgy does.  After all, everyone encounters, and accommodates, human evil every day.  Nor is such hysteria actually a valid critical response to Clybourne Park - which is coolly distanced in tone, eschews completely the actual attacks made on the Hansberries, and metes out far more contempt than condemnation to its villains.

Which may be why so many people have heard the echo of Edward Albee in Bruce Norris's authorial voice.  Actually, in Clybourne Park, make that "outright mimicry" rather than echo.  Which is a bit surprising, for while Norris seems to present his play as the "next step" in the struggle of Lorraine Hansberry's family - at the end of Raisin, her family prepares to move into (yes) a suburb called "Clybourne Park"  - he has dropped her style and voice entirely.  The first half of Clybourne is populated by despairing white souls lost in a moral vacuum - particularly an Albee-esque WASP couple with a house to unload who wrestle constantly with social disgust, self-disgust, and a pervasive sense of their absurd existential position.  The death of their troubled son, and the ensuing implication of shame and sterility (all constant Albee tropes) loom large in their shared psychology.  Plus the moral shame of Vietnam (here, though, Korea, where the son committed a war crime) is just off-stage for everybody. And of course not only is God dead, but their non-denominational minister is even in a corset.  In this haunted house of recycled absurdism, the color bar seems a million miles away.

Which actually might have made for an interesting new perspective on his themes, if Norris knew how to forge a connection between the stylistic worlds of Hansberry and Albee.  But he doesn't.  Instead he seems to think the two styles can simply hang together as companion pieces, because they both held sway on different American stages at roughly the same time; and we feel, too, that yes, there must be some connection between these modes - but what is it? For Norris's clumsy hinge between existential moral decline and the rising demands of social justice feels weird, and slightly wrong.  We can tell Norris is talking apples and oranges  - and so can his own African-American characters, who think the white people are simply "crazy."  And as if to underline the gap for everyone, Norris introduces a deaf character (Rachael Warren), who literally can't hear what anyone is saying.  Is she supposed to serve as some symbolic sign that the cultural modes in play share no points of communication?  Is Clybourne Park supposed to operate as a parody of a cultural moment?  There might be something to that, but it seems awfully meta.  Awfully meta.  I kind of doubt the Pulitzer committee picked that up, in fact.  And at any rate, Norris does try to yoke his two worlds together with one over-obvious symbol - here, the footlocker of the dead soldier, which is buried like a curse in the back yard of the house in question, only to re-surface along with the neighborhood's racism fifty years later.  But was Lt. William Calley really the cause of racism in Chicago?  When you ponder it, this gambit makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Which isn't to say Norris finds no common artistic ground with his source.  Tellingly, on both sides of the color bar, the sale of the property in question depends on death - the African-American family of Raisin, the Youngers, have the cash on hand to buy the house thanks to an insurance policy taken out by their fallen patriarch.  Meanwhile, in Norris's sequel, the white family is willing to sell because of the death of their son.  This unspoken parallel I think would have gotten the playwright a lot further in his quest for an actual statement than any of the retro-absurdist tropes he has come up with.  And yet it's the one detail he never makes really explicit.  Why?

Back to the future: Mia Ellis, Joe Wilson, Jr., and Rachael Warren in the second half of Clybourne Park.
But wait, things get weirder in the second half, when Norris fast-forwards to the millennium, after "Clybourne Park" has endured decades of white flight and decline (ironically, precisely what the racists predicted in Act I). The area is now on the verge of gentrification, though; white people are coming back. Indeed, a young yuppie couple - she's even pregnant - has bought what we take to be "the Hansberry house" (here a low-rise tract home, rather than the historical brick triple decker).

Only once again there's a rub - and the races have come together (as the liberals in the play's first half fervently wished they could) to sort things out.  It seems the yuppies would like to replace the existing structure with a new "McMansion" for their expanding family - which doesn't sit well with the people of color on the Neighborhood Committee.  In particular "Lena" (Mia Ellis) remembers that this property was the one in which the color bar was first broken - by her aunt; and thus, she feels, it deserves to be preserved as is.

Needless to say, the yuppies are shocked, shocked by the subtext of this demand - and we do feel at first that Norris has raised an intriguing new wrinkle in the canvas of race relations. For in essence, isn't Lena once more using "race" as a means of restricting property rights?  Isn't the reverse-racist shoe now on the other foot?

But on further reflection, we realize the answer to that question is - no, not really. Lena isn't demanding that only black families live in Clybourne Park. She is only asking that history be commemorated - much as Lorraine Hansberry's actual home was granted landmark status. Her request comes late, and so perhaps isn't fair to the house's new owners - but that doesn't make it a new form of racism, unless any commemoration of our racial struggle is construed as racism, too.

Somewhere, I think, Bruce Norris knows this; because he almost immediately drops any actual debate of Lena's claims.  To get through his play, however, he must carry on somehow, so he cranks up the hackneyed device of the squirm-inducing Slur Smackdown. You know the drill - it's a lot like the "Let's sing along with Susan Sarandon" trope I ridiculed here.  In the Slur Smackdown, one party - for reasons never convincingly explained - drops an ethnic, racial, sexual, or religious slur. Copious amounts of hi-larious offense ensue. And inevitably, the aggrieved party shoots back with their own offensive one-liner. Soon all "pretensions" of manners are shot to hell, and everybody is giving as good as they get, and we're forced to admit (yet again) that deep down we're all brothers and sisters under the skin, because we all hate each other's guts.

This is heart-warming, I know, in its way - and for the frat boys among us, both actual and honorary, it's a form of low catharsis.  Indeed, the survival of the mean-spirited ethnic joke (and the homophobic joke, the sexist joke, and every other kind of joke) actually only means that the inevitable frictions between competing social identities are being vented without, at least, open conflict (as Mel Brooks demonstrated ages ago).

What bothers me about the exercise here is that it's simply beside the point; there's interesting cultural work to be done, based on Norris's premise, but the playwright refuses to do it.  That the white family knows a nasty joke about black people, and the black family knows one about white people, doesn't really tell us all that much about life in the millennium.  Particularly when a latter-day Albee would have had a field day with the fatuous libertarianism of the yuppie husband (Mauro Hantmann), or the crass breeder avarice of his wife (Rachael Warren) - or, yes, Lena's own apparent feeling that the neighborhood could, or should, be frozen in time, like a living museum, to commemorate her aunt.

Clearly there's a lot there to unpack, but Norris can't be bothered - and why?  Well, I imagine because it might make his play truly controversial.  And he doesn't want that - we're all supposed to agree in the theatre, remember? The playwright is expected to pour his scorn onto somebody else, somebody who isn't actually in the audience.  So Norris diverts his action into shared laughter over outrageous dirty jokes.  He parodies "hysteria" a second time, but refuses to dig beneath it, into its actual causes.

Oh, well.   Can you see why I'm beginning to wonder if "race" is written out - or perhaps can't be written about any further in the mainstream theatre?  Here we have an enormous new work, that has been structured impeccably, in which themes echo between eras, and are even developed in counterpoint.  A work that has been showered with praise and awards.

And yet, at bottom, it's a dodge, designed to fulfill a political obligation without the de-stabilizing risks of actual art.   We've literally seen everything in Clybourne Park before.

So why do I think it's the must-see show right now in the region?  Well, because even simulation has its pleasures, and this production is packed with them - individual moments do pop with harrowing authenticity, even if nothing really hangs together, and the show is often bitterly, if superficially, funny.  Timothy Crowe's furious despair and Anne Scurria's desperation leap off the stage in the first act, and the rest of the ensemble is nearly as good.   It feels at first blush like a big, important night in the theatre.  Only later do you realize that its "mirrored" structure has been just that - a hall of mirrors reflecting other, better plays.


  1. Great review. I think you're getting at something which is at the heart of Norris' trademark shtick and its popularity among the awards set. We get to have both our self-congratulation (for daring to explore this kind of 'edgy' material) and self-satisfaction (the characters onstage are safely removed enough so we can laugh AT them and never think about our own complicity.)

    Delving into anything truly complicated or controversial would remove the possibility of awards benediction.

    Blogless Joe

  2. I saw this production last night and think your critique is spot-on. There's no doubt it was spectacularly acted and directed and I was engaged throughout, wanting to know what would happen, but once the lights went down and I began to actually think for a moment, I quickly realized the play makes no sense.

    The first act is actually not about race at all. It is about a couple dealing with a tragedy. That they are selling the house to African Americans is incidental to what they are going through. They didn't decide to sell it to African Americans. That was a decision made by their real estate broker. And once confronted with the knowledge of who will be buying the house, it isn't very hard for either of them to decide what to do. The wife pleads for liberal tolerance. The father doesn't give a damn. They are not struggling with racial issues or their consciences. They are struggling with the death of their son. This act could have had the same outcome if it just included the priest coming over and pressing the couple to talk about their son. The only reason to bring in race is to give the play a patina of importance.

    The second act though is only about race and because of this, it quickly runs out of steam. The characters are superficial and undefined. Norris just wants us to see blacks and whites squabbling over who has offended whose racial sensibilities. At this point, the play becomes a farce, and a not particularly insightful one at that. The message that Americans have no way to discuss race honestly and openly, that we are all racists deep down--if you have not had these thoughts before, then you're probably not the kind of person who goes to theater anyway.

    The proof of the incoherency of the play is the ending. I am at a loss to understand what the son writing his suicide note has anything to do with the second act or race in general. Norris seems to be suggesting that the atrocities Americans committed in the Korean War have lead to racial troubles in this country ever since. It just doesn't make sense, but because the play has degenerated into silliness, Norris has to save himself by giving us this big dramatic moment. Then we leave the theater thinking he has said something profound even if we can't figure out what he was saying.

    This play got the plaudits that it did because it's about race, and the presumption is that if you deal with race, you are somehow a brave, important writer. But surely, how you deal with race matters as well, no?

  3. Well said, Lawrence. I found this review and your response much more interesting than the play itself.

    Blogless Joe

  4. Just saw the Broadway production last night, now in previews at the Walter Kerr on 48th Street, and today went searching for any critic who could articulate my own frustrations with the play. Was very please to see them so eloquently expressed here. Rest assured that all of the problems you identify are indeed in the text itself, as they are just as present on Broadway as at Trinity. The Broadway version does make the positive move of very realistically portraying a building much like the Rhodes Avenue house.