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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.
Shaleah Adkisson plays Francine, a black maid, in act one, and Lena, who represents the neighborhood association, in act two. Coming at race as a serious topic, she said she didn't realize the play was supposed to be performed for laughs until after she'd signed up for the Rep production. "Personally, I didn't know this show was a comedy until I had booked the show and read the play twice," she said. "I went on the show's website to see if there was anything up about it, and it said, 'A black and white comedy.' I was like, 'Wait ...' Then I watched clips of it and I saw, 'Oh, it IS funny.' "
Adkisson believes the comedy in the play makes the heavy ideas contained within it more palatable to modern audiences. "We need the ability to laugh at the absurd," she said. "Yes, these issues still exist and they can be very tense and very stressful and very polarizing. But if you can't laugh at it, you're going to be miserable. It's like that with any serious issue."
Robert Ierardi, who plays the characters of Russ and Dan, agrees with Adkisson's take on the power of laugher when dealing with serious topics. "It drives the point home," he said. "It's like [The Daily Show with] Jon Stewart. In the '50s, everything was very serious to drive the point home. Now, if it's funny, people remember it ... . The good thing for the audience is that they're as uncomfortable as we are onstage, so they're not alone. They can laugh with us."
"We define ourselves sometimes," said actor Jason O'Connell, who plays Kurt in act one and Russ in act two. "We say, 'I'm liberal,' or 'I'm more conservative.' Sometimes we — especially liberals — think that absolves us. I think what I'd like people to come away with is the same thing that I come away from reading and working with ["Clybourne Park"], which is: facing your own prejudices, whether you think you have them or not ... . You might be the most quote-unquote liberal person in the world, but you may have some prejudices."
While Baker always aims to give audiences its money's worth, in the case of "Clybourne Park," he hopes the play will stay with audience members long after the curtain is drawn, hopefully fostering some difficult self-reflection.
"I hope that an audience [member] walks out thinking, 'Oh my God ... . I didn't have any idea that I was that kind of person,' " Baker said. "I think the power of theater is that it changes a person — you walk in one way, you walk out differently. I don't care if a racist storms out. I hope they do! That doesn't matter to me. As long as the experience of going to the theater made a difference in the way somebody will be thinking in the future, however small that is, then I think we've succeeded."
"Clybourne Park" opens formally Jan. 24 with a post-show reception and runs through Feb. 9. Tickets are $25 to $40.
The Rep is hosting a number of events in conjunction with the production, including a panel discussion with the cast at the Clinton School of Public Service at noon on Thursday, Jan. 23, and a panel discussion at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center at 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 4. Both panel discussions are free and open to the public. Prior to the Jan. 22 and Jan. 23 performances, there will also be a panel discussion about the changing face of Little Rock neighborhoods, featuring Director Cliff Baker and Jess Porter and John Kirk from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock History Department. The neighborhoods panel begins at 6:15 p.m. on those nights, and curtain is at 7 p.m.