When we last saw the character Karl Lindner he was unsuccessful in his appeal to prevent the Younger family specifically and blacks in general from integrating into his all-white neighborhood, Clybourne Park. Lindner was a minor (and the only white) character in Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 classic American play "A Raisin in the Sun."
The play’s title comes from a poem by Langston Hughes who asked, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?"
"A Raisin in the Sun" demonstrates how easy dreams are made. But the play also explores how fragile they are. The play examines dreams broken and fulfilled.
But Karl Lindner doesn’t give up easily as he blasts into Bruce Norris’ 2010 play "Clybourne Park." The play picks up directly after the events in Hansberry’s play in the 1959 Chicago neighborhood of Clybourne Park. Lindner along with his pregnant deaf wife and the local minister invade into the very home the Youngers are about to buy from the present owners Bev and Ross.
Linder and the pastor plead to Bev and Russ for the sake of the neighborhood (i.e. property values) not to sell their house. Their attempts only rip the scars off of Russ’ grief for the loss of his adult son. Before long all gloves are off as the characters wrestle openly about their feelings about a black family moving into their neighborhood.
As a companion piece to "A Raisin in the Sun" Norris’ play won both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony award for Best Play. The play is very, very funny. And uncomfortable. Behind closed doors the characters are freed from filtering their words and feelings, and they do so in ways that make theater patrons squirm in their seats while laughing their asses off.
But playwright Norris has more up his sleeve. The above description only depicts events in the first act of "Clybourne Park." The second act jumps forward 50 years to 2009. In those 50 years the Clybourne Park neighborhood has turned into an all-black neighborhood, the Younger house itself has fallen into disrepair and the neighborhood is now attracting white couples re-integrating into the suddenly trendy neighborhood (complete with its own Whole Foods.)
All of the actors from Act One play different characters in Act Two. These include the white pregnant couple, Steve and Lindsey, who plan to raze the house and build a McMansion. The plans for the new house exceed height restrictions of local housing regulations. A black couple, Lena and Kevin, represent the neighborhood association who want to express to Steve and Lindsey the importance and value of keeping the spirit of the neighborhood intact.
All the characters, including Steve and Lindsey’s attorney and their realtor want to appear pleasant. But they are decidedly unpleasant characters whose initial trivial bickering descend into an open discussion of racial issues including an "Oh no they didn’t" round of racial jokes that like in Act One are designed to make you feel extremely awkward as you are laughing out loud.
Joel Ferrell directs "Clybourne Park" with a bold confidence. The play at any given time has four to six characters, each with his own agenda, interacting with each other. In lesser hands a play like this could collapse amidst its busyness. But Ferrell deftly moves his players around the stage like a Grand Chess Master, focusing the theater patrons’ eye on the main narrative.
Ferrell’s actors are first rate. Steven Michael Walters plays Karl Linder in the first act and Steve in the second act. Walters’ interpretation of both unpleasant characters is so despicably on-target that if you met him on the streets you’d be tempted to spit in his eye. Chamblee Ferguson displays layers of talents as he first quietly internalizes Russ’ grief until his neighbors press him to0 hard and Ferguson unleashes Russ’ grief in a devastating raw explosion.
Allison Pistorius is a winning physical comedienne. Pistorius can express as much emotions with her facial repertoire as she can when she is delivering knife-sharp dialogue. But it’s the chillingly cool delivery of a five-word punch line by the impressive Tiffany Hobbs that stops the show.
What "Clybourne Park" doesn’t have is the emotional heft that "A Raisin in the Sun" basks in. "Clybourne Park" is a very good, but very cold comedy with a bitter message -- that even with a sitting black President in the White House, racial relations haven’t changed that much in 50 years. Playwright Norris dismally toys with the conclusion that what has changed is the emergence of a politically correct vocabulary that we can hide our personal beliefs and feelings behind.
In both acts, Norris foreshadows his conclusions by having characters question and debate the origins of words (for example, Neapolitan ice cream) and the proper labeling of groups of people (what is the proper way to refer to a resident of Naples?) Whether you agree with Norris’ conclusions or not, "Clybourne Park" is thought-provoking theater with themes and laughs, that you’ll be talking about for days.
Dallas Theater Center is presenting both "A Raisin in the Sun" and "Clybourne Park" in repertory this fall. Both shows are now playing.
"A Raisin in the Sun" and "Clybourne Park" run through Oct. 27 at the Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora Street in Dallas. For info or tickets, call 214-880-0202 or visit www.dallastheatercenter.org