(This review is by American-Statestman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park is something of a brilliant oddity, an original work set in the world of another playwright’s creation (in this case, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun) that does not rely on that other text for its potency.
Penfold Theatre’s production of Clybourne Park, playing in the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center for the Performing Arts through June 5, does a wonderful job exploring the nuances of Norris’ text, raising uneasy questions about the historical underpinnings of contemporary gentrification that speak potently to a city in the midst of such problems.
Clybourne Park is a dynamically structured piece that essentially welds together two one-act plays, with the first act set in the 1950s and the second in the present day. What joins these two scenes together is the house they are both set within, and the themes that resonate across the history of American racial integration.
The house is the same one that the Younger family debates moving into in A Raisin in the Sun, located (in the 1950s) in an all-white neighborhood. Act I of Clybourne Park focuses on the white family moving out of the house prior to the Youngers moving in, while Act II focuses on a young white couple moving into the house in the present day, as part of the wave of gentrification coming to a neighborhood that is now mostly home to families of color.
Director Nathan Jerkins wisely eschews bells and whistles in this production of Clybourne Park, allowing the text and the potent performances to speak for themselves. The first act is very much in the mode of an Arthur Miller-style 1950s family drama, while the second act is more of a contemporary black comedy/ “dramedy.” The performers – who play different roles in each act – seem to effortlessly make this code-switch, aided by a thoughtful intermission that uses audio cues to bring the audience from the 1950s through to the present.
The entire cast shows remarkable versatility in portraying these duel roles, but Babs George (as 1950s housewife Bev, who goes beyond the simple sitcom-ish characterization we first see, and as politically clueless property lawyer Kathy) and Robert Matney (as the calmly racist Karl – from Hansberry’s original play – and as the politically incorrect Steve, representing the banality of racism in both cases) are particular stand-outs.
Clybourne Park is a powerful statement about how racism – both overt and benign – plays out in the history of American housing. In a city where the specter of gentrification hangs over seemingly every recent major property decision, Penfold Theater’s production of Norris’ complex text holds an important message that Austin audiences would be wise to heed.