The residents of Clybourne Park could use some advice from Mister Rogers about being neighborly. That's especially true at one particular house, where the welcome is on the color of the skin of the buyer and the seller.
Bruce Norris used the events of Lorraine Hansberry's play "A Raisin in the Sun" as a starting point to tell the further adventures of the Youngers, an African-American family buying a house in the white middle-class Chicago neighborhood of Clybourne Park, a fictional stand-in for the Woodlawn section of the city. It's 1959, and neighbors are pressuring the homeowners, parents grieving over their son's death, to turn down an offer from the black family trying to escape the projects. Karl Lindner, the only white character in Hansberry's play and a representative of the neighborhood "Improvement Association," is reprised as the cringe-worthy representative of white residents opposed to black neighbors.
Act 2 is set in the same house circa 2009, when Clybourne Park has become a mostly black neighborhood in the throes of gentrification. A white couple seeking to buy the house must negotiate with African-Americans representing the neighborhood organization, and their discussion about housing codes degenerates into one of polarizing attitudes and resentments.
In the award-winning hands of Mr. Norris, the subject matter has been gift-wrapped in a wicked sense of humor. Variety described "Clybourne Park" as "dangerous, provocative and pulverizingly funny." "A master class in comic writing," declared The New Yorker. In awarding the writer the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the committee declared the play "a powerful work whose memorable characters speak in witty and perceptive ways to America's sometimes toxic struggle with race and class consciousness."
By capturing divisive social themes in eras 50 years apart, the play offers insights into how much has changed and how much hasn't, and if what has changed is all for the better. Pamela Berlin, who is directing the play for Pittsburgh Public Theater, is prepared to hear lots of laughter and see lots of squirming in seats as the play begins its run today.
"Because everyone is implicated, it speaks to all of us," she said. "It's the things that we thought and haven't dared to say out loud. Even those of us who consider ourselves politically correct, we all grow up with prejudices, and this shines a light on that."
For the actors, the universal themes explored can get very personal.
Ms. Berlin, who returns to the Public after directing plays including "Red" and "Talley's Folly," has gone off script to get the actors talking about their own experiences. The play is tricky to cast from the get-go, because of the dual roles required as the play moves 50 years into the future after Act 1, but the dialogue and subject matter is deliberately provocative and sometimes cringe-worthy.
"I said, listen, we just need to talk about some of this stuff," Ms. Berlin said. "I'm a white person directing this play and a white person wrote it. But the amazing thing about what Bruce has written, No. 1, he really presents it from both sides of the racial spectrum, and then he doesn't let anyone off the hook. So he's not taking sides, and he is intentionally provocative. But we've all had experiences [with prejudice], and that was important to discuss."
She asked the two African-American cast members, chandra thomas and Bjorn DuPaty, "Do you experience racism every day of your life?" From her own experience, she shared what it was like to be Jewish and growing up in the South. Ms. Berlin recalled a good friend reacting to someone by saying, " 'That dirty Jew.' I was 12 years old, and it was a shock," she said.
Ms. Berlin describes Mr. Norris "as shy but doesn't care if he offends anyone." Her friend was helpful when she directed a performance of "Clybourne Park" with New York University graduate students, and she has consulted with him on a few details for the Public Theater production.
"I asked him only about specifics I wasn't clear about," she said. "Not philosophical issues, but real estate specifics. In the second act, I needed to know some things, like, in this document, was it your intention ... those kind of questions. Not more global kinds of things."
Ms. Berlin was talking during a lunch break last week, a quick respite before the cast was to run the two acts back to back for the first time.
"The truth of it is, when you're in rehearsal, it's two separate plays," she said. "Tomorrow for the first time, we'll put them together. I read an interview with Pam McKinnon, who did the original production, and she said that just given the racial issues and the kind of discomfort that can potentially happen in rehearsals, she found she had to bounce back and forth in rehearsal. I can't imagine doing that."
"All in the Family" managed the pitfalls of expressing prejudice so brilliantly by creating a clearinghouse of ignorance and bigotry in the character of Archie Bunker. Likewise the Tony-winning "Avenue Q," which tested PC audience members with the ditty "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." It's not an easy concept to pull off, though, as country star Brad Paisley and rapper LL Cool J found out when they got together recently on the song "Accidental Racist," which drew ire for its insensitivity, including a defense of the Confederate flag.
In "Clybourne Park," political correctness dissipates frequently, as characters negotiate the land mines of what is culturally acceptable or deplorable, and the dialogue can leave an unpleasant aftertaste in the mouths of actors. "Fortunately, with this particular group, there hasn't been tension at all. But there could be. There could be if you're an audience member -- there better be," Ms. Berlin said.
The director served as the president of the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers from 2000-06, and her credits include several opera productions and New York plays such as "Steel Magnolias," which ran off-Broadway for three years, and "The Cemetery Club" on Broadway. Of all her directing experiences, the one that comes closest to creating a production of "Clybourne Park" was Leonard Bernstein's "Mass."
"It's about a priest who's undergoing a big crisis of faith," she said. "I did that in Norfolk, Va., and we were really curious as to what the response was going to be, because he uses profanity, he ends up breaking a challis and going into a huge rant. I don't think it's an anti-religious piece at all, but it certainly could be interpreted that way if you want to. The interesting thing was, we always had a handful of walkouts in a huge house, a 2,000-seat house, every night. But the audience was really with it all the way and really accepted it. That's as close as I've gotten to something that was risky or dangerous."
"Clybourne Park" has been embraced in big theater cities, winning the best play Tony Award last year and the 2011 Olivier Award, London's Tony equivalent. It's played Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater to acclaim as well, and now it's spreading its wings and starting to show up at regional outposts such as Pittsburgh.
Ms. Berlin feels at home at the Public because of her long-standing friendship with Ted Pappas, the company's producing artistic director, the welcoming staff and the intelligence of Pittsburgh audiences, she said. She's eager to present them with "Clybourne Park."
"People will laugh and feel uncomfortable, and it produces a lot of discussion afterward. Is there anything better than that for live theater?"
Sharon Eberson; email@example.com or 412-263-1960. First Published April 18, 2013 4:00 AM