New 'Clybourne Park' Picks Up On 1959 Race Issues

This year's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Clybourne Park" takes place on Chicago's Northwest Side on two distinct afternoons: one in 1959, the other in 2009. Inspired by the Groundbreaking drama, "A Raisin in the Sun," "Clybourne Park" highlights the politics of race and gentrification.

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This year's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Clybourne Park" is set in a fictional Chicago neighborhood, so it has special resonance now that it's playing at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre. It also has resonance because of the issues it raises: race, class, gentrification and war.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: "Clybourne Park" was inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 groundbreaking drama "A Raisin in the Sun," and it picks up where Hansberry left us. In that play, we meet the Youngers, the black family that decided to move from a South Side Chicago neighborhood to the all-white Clybourne Park.

In the new "Clybourne Park," we meet Russ and Bev Stoller, the white homeowners who decided to sell their house. It's still 1959, and in Act I, Karl Linder, the head of the Neighborhood Association, wants to stop the sale because he's discovered the buyers are black. He drops by the Stollers to express his concern.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CLYBOURNE PARK")

CLIFF CHAMBERLAIN: (as Karl Linder) And I don't think any of us have forgotten what happened to the family that moved onto Kostner Avenue last year. Now Kostner Avenue is one thing, but Clybourne Street...

KRISTEN FITZGERALD: (as Bev) Wait, wait, wait, Karl. Are you sure?

CHAMBERLAIN: (as Karl Linder) I was sitting with them not two hours ago.

FITZGERALD: (as Bev) Why isn't it possible that they're - I don't know, Mediterranean?

CORLEY: The Stollers had given a real estate agent carte blanche to handle their transaction and weren't aware of the race of the soon-to-be new owners. The situation echoes the plot of "A Raisin in the Sun," which has it roots in the real life effort of Lorraine Hansberry's father. He challenged the restrictive covenants of a segregated Chicago as he moved his family into a white community.

In the play, Karl Linder offered to buy the house back from the Younger family.

Clybourne Park Playwright Bruce Norris was in 7th grade when he saw the 1961 film adaptation of "A Raisin in the Sun."

BRUCE NORRIS: I grew up in a very segregated part of Houston. And so, to see a play - well, it was the movie instead of the play - in which the results of segregation and segregation policy were made so clear to me at a very early age, and that I was potentially the antagonist in that struggle was a really strange thing to put into the mind of a 12-year-old.

CORLEY: And so, in "Clybourne Park," Linder and Jim, the family minister, press on in their quest to keep a black family out of the neighborhood. They even awkwardly try to persuade the Stoller's black maid and her husband that living in Clybourne Park would be a mistake for any African-American family.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CLYBOURNE PARK")

CHAMBERLAIN: (as Karl Linder) For example, if Mrs. Stoller here were to send you to shop at Gellman's, do you find when you're standing in the aisles at Gellman's, does it generally strike you that as the kind of market where you can find the particular foods your family enjoys?

KAREN ALDRIDGE: (as Francine) It's a very nice store.

CHAMBERLAIN: (as Karl Linder) What if we were to say...

ALDRIDGE: (as Francine) Mr. Gellman's a nice man.

But I mean your preferred food items, would such things even be available at Gellman's?

JAMES VINCENT MEREDITH: (as Albert) Do they carry collards and pig feet?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MEREDITH: (as Albert) 'Cause I sure can't shop where there ain't no pig feet.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORLEY: Norris says Clybourne Park is not just a play about race or the racial conflict between blacks and whites.

NORRIS: It's about clannishness and how we divide ourselves up into clans of people when our territory is threatened, because literally, that's what happens in the play, is that there's a territorial dispute over a piece of property.

CORLEY: But clans have their limits, and the white homeowners, Russ and Bev, fell out of favor with their neighbors after their son, a soldier who committed atrocities in the Korean War, returned home. John Judd, who plays Russ in this production, says Norris uses his character to show race is not always the primary force behind the departure of whites from changing neighborhoods.

JOHN JUDD: They're fleeing something else. They've tasted a bit of the alienation from the community that people of color might have also experienced. In other words, they're not embraced any longer because of this thing that has happened, this family shame.

CORLEY: There is an actual Clybourne Park in Chicago, but it is not a neighborhood. It's a play lot, complete with a basketball court, a swing set and some greenery, situated near Chicago's elevated train tracks.

Northwestern University English Professor Bill Savage says even though the play's Clybourne Park is a fictional place, what happens there fits the dynamic of many of the city's communities.

BILL SAVAGE: Neighborhoods can be communal places that support the members who live in it, or they can be tribal places that attack outsiders. Or they can be both.

CORLEY: And that plays out in the second act of "Clybourne Park," set 50 years later in the same living room of that bungalow. It's tattered now. There's graffiti on a couple of walls, the stained glass windows gone. A white couple has bought the house in the now all-black and gentrifying neighborhood. They want to tear the home down and build anew. Their black neighbors want to preserve the neighborhood's history and want the white couple to alter their McMansion plans.

Their chat, with attorneys present, turns into an uncomfortable and eventually hostile conversation. Karen Aldridge portrays Lena, a black woman whose aunt used to live in the bungalow. She echoes the arguments of the white Karl Linder, as she and her husband try to persuade her white neighbors to save the house.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "CLYBOURNE PARK")

ALDRIDGE: (as Lena) If you have a residential area in direct proximity to downtown...

CHAMBERLAIN: (as Steve) Right.

ALDRIDGE: (as Lena) ...and if that area is occupied by a particular group...

STEPHANIE CHILDERS: (as Lindsey) You know what?

CHAMBERLAIN: (as Steve) Which group?

CHILDERS: (as Lindsey) We're talking about one house.

ALDRIDGE: (as Lena) I understand that.

CHAMBERLAIN: (as Steve) Which group? Which group?

CHILDERS: (as Lindsey) A house for our family...

ALDRIDGE: (as Lena) That's how it happens

CHILDERS: (as Lindsey)...in which to raise our child.

CHAMBERLAIN: (as Lindsey) No. No. Which group?

ALDRIDGE: (as Lena) It happens one house at a time.

CHAMBERLAIN: Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Okay, stop right there.

CORLEY: When "Clybourne Park" was recognized with a Pulitzer this year, the jury called the play a powerful work, whose characters speak to America's sometimes toxic struggle with race and class consciousness.

After each performance, audience members have their critiques, too. Chicagoan Veronica Anderson says both "Clybourne Park" and "A Raisin in the Sun" touch a sensitive space.

VERONICA ANDERSON: It's almost like a family that can't get to the bottom of the reason why they can't get along, because they just can't touch that very sensitive spot.

CORLEY: A discussion leader shooed the audience out after awhile. Playwright Bruce Norris says he's doesn't believe it's a discussion that will ever end.

NORRIS: It's going to happen 50 years from now. It's going to happen a hundred years from now. The details may change. It might be Hispanics versus Asian-Americans. It may be Hindus versus Muslims. We don't know, but the behavior of humans tends to repeat itself.

CORLEY: "Clybourne Park" wraps up at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre this weekend. It's running at other regional theatres, and it will be produced in Los Angeles early next year, with plans to take that show to Broadway.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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