If you’re up for a night of powerful live theatre there is still time to catch Clybourne Park, the multi-award winning play written by Bruce Norris and brought to the Ottawa stage for the first time by director Chantal Plante. This tension fuelled, incisive drama will make you laugh, make you squirm and make you think. Even in the face of some pretty heavy subject matter, the show has plenty of humour, though it isn’t always the result of the lines as much as an uneasiness.
Clyborne Park takes its name and inspiration from Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a story of an African-American family’s ambitions to leave poverty behind as represented by a home in the white neighbourhood of Clybourne Park. Split into two acts, Norris’ script takes up the story of the same house just before the first African-American family moves into the neighbourhood in 1959 (act one) and then fifty years later (act two) in a provocative look at racism, the borderlines of community and the lengths we go to avoid confrontation.
In act one it’s 1959, Clybourne Park is a white enclave and Bev and Russ Stoller are packing up to move with the help of their African-American housekeeper, Francine (Cherie Hoyte). The action builds slowly but there’s an ever present sense of unease lurking beneath the mundane conversation (the pressing question of what Neapolitan means is explored at length). Linda Webster plays Bev with a teetering desperation that frames her impeccable appearance and efforts to say all the right things as a cover for secret sadness.
In the hands of Lawrence Evenchick, Russ is a slowly ticking time bomb, also marked by sorrow and weary from putting on a brave face for too long. There’s a strange suspense in waiting for him to break. Things get increasingly fragile with the prodding of incessantly friendly minister Jim (J.T. Morris) and then come to a head when nosy neighbour Karl drops in with his wife announcing that the Stoller’s house has been sold to a Black family and voicing his fears for “the community.” David Holton makes Karl truly awful with his nasal delivery, whiny inflection and fussy physicality. Some especially cringe-worthy moments follow when the oblivious Karl enlists Francine and her husband Albert (Eze Leno) to support his view that the differences between races are irreconcilable. When all the niceties finally snap, the rage on the stage feels real.
Come act two, fifty years have passed, it’s another hot Chicago summer and Clybourne Park is now an African-American neighbourhood facing gentrification. The house has fallen into squalor. A young white couple, Lindsey and Steve (Kirby Naftel and David Holton) are planning to demolish it and rebuild bigger and better in its place. The scene sees Steve and Lindsey meeting with community members Lena and Kevin and a pair of lawyers over zoning restrictions. As in act one the tension bubbles up slowly until it boils over though fiercer this time around.
The first act is far more compelling simply because the characters are more emotionally charged and the situation thus feels more urgent although I enjoyed watching both scenes unfold to gradually reveal the back story, the reason for the move in act one and then the connections between characters in each era in act two.
Set designer Robin Riddihough deserves a shout out for nicely capturing 1950s coziness in act one and then pulling off a jarring transformation of the house for act two. Props also to sound designer Robert Krukowski, whose musical choices smoothly ease the audience into the world of the play. Cool jazz introduces act one, hip hop-tinged jazz foreshadows the way things have changed though the theme remains just before act two and a dusty trumpet shows the audience out at the close. Rather than giving the audience any ready-packed take away message, this show does something better, it brings each of us to a reckoning with our beliefs, the smoke screens we’ve been holding so long we no longer even notice.
Clybourne Park is at the Ottawa Little Theatre until January 31, 2015. click here for tickets and showtimes. Following the Jan. 24 show there will be a panel discussion entitled “Have Things Really Changed? Racism – The Elephant in the Room.”