'Clybourne Park' at the Rep shows you can laugh about race in America 

Pulitzer-winning drama opens Jan. 24.

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There's a black president in the White House and a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall, but anybody who tells you we're living in a post-racial society is kidding themselves. Don't believe it? Just bring up the issue of race in a racially mixed crowd and watch everybody squirm through uncomfortable silences. While there are arguments that still need to be made about race in America today so we can hold the ground that's been gained, very few will risk kicking the hornet's nest and being labeled a bigot — or at least naive and clueless about a topic that continues to shape our life and times.

"Clybourne Park," opening Jan. 24 at the Arkansas Repertory Theater, serves as a reminder that we can all still have a conversation — and yes, laugh — about race in America. The director and actors behind Rep staging hope that in addition to a good time at the theater, the comedy can provide a stealth wake-up call for those who harbor the most insidious brand of prejudice: the kind you don't even know you have.

"Clybourne Park," which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2011, was written by playwright Bruce Norris as a companion piece to Lorraine Hansberry's classic 1959 drama "A Raisin in the Sun." While "Raisin" is about as serious as you can get on stage, Norris' play is a dark comedy, getting some of its biggest laughs from the nervous crab-shuffle most people, and especially liberally minded people, tend to do when the topic of race comes up.

The first act is set in 1959 as a white couple, Bev and Russ, prepare to sell their home in Chicago's all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood to a black family (the Younger family from the Hansberry play) following the death of their son. The second act is set 50 years later, as a black couple representing the neighborhood association butts heads with a white couple who hope to buy the same house, now run down, in the predominantly black but quickly-gentrifying neighborhood. The same set of actors play different characters in each act. Even the set gets the ol' switcheroo: a stagecraft quick-change during intermission that transforms the house at the center of the story from a tidy bungalow to a forlorn wreck.

The Rep's production of "Clybourne Park" is directed by Cliff Fannin Baker, who was the founding artistic director of the Arkansas Repertory Theater before stepping down in 1999. Baker said that though the Hansberry play "feeds" "Clybourne Park," knowing "Raisin" isn't crucial to be able to understand it. Baker said that for him, "Clybourne Park" is about the human connection that transcends race. It's also about the way the racial issues that haunt America tend to percolate through from the past to the present.

"Fifty years go by," Baker said, "and a marginalized black couple in the '50s is now a successful, achieving couple in 2009, and yet the same issues still exist for black and white characters: where you're going to live, what's going to happen to property values. It has that underpinning of a deeper issue that America has always fostered and been a part of, which is the changing complexion of neighborhoods."

Baker said that one of the reasons he believes the play struck a nerve with audiences in 2011 was that the country was going through financial upheaval fostered by real estate, after "the whole banking system had sort of collapsed under the weight of corrupt real estate investments." While that might sound like more spinach than cotton candy, the play turns out to be very funny, often inducing those delicious cringe-laughs of guilty recognition while tackling the topics of race and gentrification head on.


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