Gentrification Ain't No Joke

03/23/2010 4:30 PM |

Bruce Norris's latest piece, Clybourne Park, is a concise examination of race in America and its various mutations from the conservative 50s to the differently conservative present. There is something for every racist/ignorant person out there in the fictional Clybourne Park neighborhood, and truly nothing is sacred in Norris’s imagined community, he attacks everything: homosexuality, deafness, whites, blacks, blonds, conservatives, liberals, males, females, blue collar, white collar, veterans, fathers, mothers, the clergy, the mentally disabled, geniuses, war crimes, hate crimes and anything else that you might be able to make an obscene joke about and have to take a look around before you tell it. The way that Norris approaches these taboos is refreshing and unapologetic; the playwright is looking for a fight and has no qualms about about admitting to it—in an interview with New York magazine Norris said, "I want there to be an argument, and so I start one. It's incredibly easy to do."

Norris confronts our tendency to only address race tangentially in a snappy and quick-hitting script that creates obvious and unavoidable stylistic parallels to Edward Albee and David Mamet. But does this veritable smorgasbord of stereotypes cheapen the underlying commentary, over-saturating the work with ignorance and numbing the audience to its possible impact? Or is that the point? Clybourne Park is a spot-on rendering of gentrification from multiple perspectives, which seems especially relevant to Brooklyn given its constantly polarizing presence in the borough. Although some may argue that Norris's dirty joke war towards the end of the play comes off as a celebration of intolerance, it is interesting to note how liberated the actors seem on stage, as if getting all these tensions out in the open frees them of some intangible emotional burden. This makes the play a joy to watch.

The main thrust of the first act—set in the titular Chicago district in the 50s—centers around Russ (played by the nasally grump Frank Wood) and his wife, Bev (the perfectly mannered and ditsy Christina Kirk) and their decision to move out of the area because of Rotary Club meeting derision in regards to their son's suicide. Russ is exasperated with his supposed community—he has essentially been cast out by his own kind—and is appalled that he and his wife are being treated as if they had some disease. And truly no one even cares that they are leaving until the house is bought by a black family. This precipitates a stuttering and unsure dissection of race issues between the head of the Rotary Club Karl (Jeremy Shamos), the Irish preacher Jim (Brendan Griffin), and Russ and Betsy’s black hired help—Francine (Crystal Dickinson) and her husband Albert (Damon Gupton). The white interrogators in this scene want to know what one black family thinks about another moving into this all-white neighborhood; an effort to prove their point without ever actually having to voice an opinion. Francine and Ralph could care less, really, and are just trying to placate their tip-toeing, over-analyzing Rotarian interlocutors. Karl notes, as if he were positing a new scientific theory, "that in the world, there exist certain differences." When they seem to get nowhere, Karl jumps to his feet and blurts out, "Do you ski?"

Perhaps the greatest success in this very successful dark comedy is the recasting of all the characters in the first act for the second. It is interesting to see how Norris imagines the 50s character's present day counterparts—the priest, for example, becomes a gay real estate agent. The set has transformed from the perfect and pre-fab ambiance of the Huxtable residence to a decidedly more lived-in, trashed and re-appropriated crack house. What has happened to Clybourne Park and why are we here again? The conflict this time around involves a pregnant white couple buying and renovating the old house, and the protests from the black family whose parents had lived there and who are also now on the community architecture board. Lawyers are present and terms are supposed to be brought to the table and agreed upon for the renovation (they are arguing over 6 inches on the roof, essentially).

Both couples try to be civil but both are angry: the black family feels their neighborhood is being intruded upon and the white family feels like they are meeting unnecessary and unproductive resistance at every turn. Norris is a gifted ironist in that the essential problems being faced here are cyclical and when looked at from both perspectives each looks alternately righteous or ugly, and the whole issue is reduced to simple, callous ignorance and hate. But irony is a destructive force and Norris offers nothing more than a duel of offensive jokes to replace the issues he has raised—"What is the difference between a tampon and a white lady? No difference, they're both stuck up cunts." Even though Norris is loathe to offer solutions, and most of these stereotypes are easy prey for a masterful insultist, it may be more important to note that a solution might lie somewhere in the audience—the whole theater laughed at every joke, white or black, gay or straight, male or female—and saw for a moment they were just jokes intended to offend. This realization, if carried over to reality, might do a great deal to open up lines of communication and create solutions in gentrifying areas that aren't supported by irony at all.

(photo credit: Joan Marcus)