Everyone’s a little bit racist, it’s true
But everyone is just about as racist as you
If we all could just admit that we are racist a little bit
And everyone stopped being so P. C.
Maybe we could live in harmony
(from Avenue Q, by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx)
Playwright Bruce Norris takes Avenue Q’s snarky bromide to its logical conclusion in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park, now playing through February 10 at San Diego REP’s Lyceum Stage. I have a bone to pick with how Mr. Norris manipulates the story, but I have no bones about recommending this solid-at-every-level production.
Mr. Norris takes off on Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, by setting his work in the house that the Younger family bought and by appropriating one of that play’s characters. Creatively, he imagines that Bev (Sandy Campbell) and Russ (Mark Pinter) are selling their house and moving to the suburbs because of a tragedy that occurred there. They’ve turned the sale over to a realtor to move quickly, and their only agenda is to leave and start over, ignoring the consolation of Jim (Jason Maddy), their priest. Enter neighbors Karl (Jason Heil) and his congenitally deaf and very pregnant wife, Betsy (Amanda Leigh Cobb). Karl has just come from visiting the Youngers, where he has been unsuccessful in persuading the family to give up their dream of buying the house. Karl continues his pleading with Russ and Bev, but Russ’s ears on this issue are as deaf as Betsy’s. Meanwhile, Francine (Monique Gaffney), the maid, is trying to escape the scene with her husband, Albert (Matt Orduna) so as to avoid hauling a heavy Army trunk down a difficult set of stairs.
Act 2 is set 50 years later, in 2009. The house has fallen into disrepair and portions of it are covered with graffiti (credit Robin Sanford Roberts’ adaptable scenic design). Steve (Mr. Heil) and his pregnant wife, Lindsey (Ms. Cobb) are negotiating the final terms of a contract to purchase the property, tear it down, and build a much larger home on the site. In on the negotiations is Kathy (Ms. Campbell), a lawyer who happens to be the daughter that was born to Karl and Betsy. Also on the scene are Tom (Mr. Maddy), a realtor; Lena and Kevin (Ms. Gaffney and Mr. Orduna), who represent the neighborhood association; and Dan, a worker who is digging in the back yard in preparation for the demolition.
Mr. Norris wants to point out that “isms” of all types still exist, even if we try to do a better job of covering them over today. Act 1 is all deliberate ’50s stereotypes (credit Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ costume design), particularly with Ms. Campbell adorned in grand style to do packing and cleaning for the impending move. From a more-than-50-years’ distance it is easy to recognize the racist attitudes and remarks, even from well-meaning white people. It’s also easy to recognize the sorts of behavior that “good Negroes” (as wonderfully embodied by Ms. Gaffney and Mr. Orduna) were expected to engage in so that they could have adequate working-class lives.
In Act 2, a group that might well consider themselves to be post-racial in attitudes nevertheless mix it up, bringing out contemporary versions of hateful speech: not only racist but sexist and homophobic. Characters are “called out” for their lapses in this regard, but chaos ensues nevertheless. Mr. Norris provides resonances between some of the first and second act characters, particularly for Mr. Heil, whose performances as Karl and Steve are the highlight of the evening. For example, Karl, Mr. Heil’s first-act character, argues that the Younger family shouldn’t move in because the school children take a skiing trip every year, and black people clearly have no interest in skiing. In Act 2, Kevin casually chats with Steve about Lena and his ski trip to Europe.
But, clever as these connections may be I fault Mr. Norris for cheating on the set-up for the Act 2 confrontation. Lena and Kevin are there to protest that the house Steve and Lindsey plan to build is out of character with the neighborhood, and they clearly are correct. The fight would have been fairer had Steve and Lindsey proposed to build a new house but in the style of the rest of the neighborhood. With the present set-up, the conversation degenerates much like that in the recent play, God of Carnage – only Carnage was funnier.
Still, the REP’s assembled a crackerjack cast, and Sam Woodhouse’s direction snaps and pops. It is fun to watch the actors transform from Act 1 to Act 2, particularly Ms. Campbell, who goes from the perfect housewife to a competent but clueless attorney. Mr. Maddy gets the short stick, character-wise, but he does manage a haunting appearance in a coda that brings the two acts together like a slap in the face.[php snippet=1]
Have we really moved into a post-racial society? Probably not. As President Obama pointed out in his second inaugural address: “We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names,” and then he went on to praise the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. Maybe Mr. Norris’ play would have been even more provocative had it been about finding happiness while allowing others sufficient liberty to do the same. The REP’s production will make you laugh, make you sad, but most of all make you think.