Racism persists, but the ways in which we feel and express it change with the times — as exemplified in Bruce Norris's brilliant Clybourne Park. The play was inspired by Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, at the end of which the Youngers, a struggling black family, are about to move into a white neighborhood. Norris has imagined the inhabitants of the house they will move into, Russ and Bev. The action starts in 1959. Russ and Bev have a black maid, Francine, toward whom Bev is fussily solicitous without ever really seeing her as a separate person. Russ is too depressed to see anything much at all. These people are the product of their times, completely unaware of their own prejudices. Karl, a neighbor — and the only holdover character from Raisin — arrives with his deaf wife, Betsy, to try and talk them out of selling to the Youngers. As it turns out, there's a tragic reason why they are selling their home so cheaply: Their son, who committed atrocities against civilians while fighting in Korea, eventually killed himself in the house.
The second act takes place in 2009, when the neighborhood is primarily black, and Steve and Lindsey, a white couple, are about to move into 406 Clybourne Street, ambitious architectural plans in hand. Along with their lawyer, they're in discussion with Lena and Kevin, a professional black couple who represent the neighborhood committee. These two are concerned about maintaining the area's historical integrity, and perhaps less than thrilled about having white neighbors.
Norris has not only provided some of the most charged, funny, provocative and thought-provoking dialogue imaginable, he has also found very different dramaturgical styles for the two eras represented in his play. Act one feels like a '50s drawing-room comedy, or perhaps an episode of All in the Family, with Bev as a less insightful Edith Bunker — well-meaning, conventional and yet blunderingly anxious to do right. Russ, on the other hand, is lost in a fog of sorrow, broken by occasional bursts of rage and a single ugly racist exclamation. Yet despite all the undercurrents, Bev and Russ's home feels rooted and real.
Presented by Curious Theatre Company through October 15, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org.
Act two is completely different: more overtly satiric, with swifter, often broken dialogue and a more superficial treatment of the characters. These people are thematically related to Russ and Bev, Francine and her husband, Albert, and Karl and Betsy, and they're played by the same actors. Everyone's a liberal now. Steve and Kevin, both businessmen, bond briefly before ending up at each other's throats. Where once everyone shopped at Gelman's (in the first act, Russ cited Murray Gelman as an example of successful integration, despite his having hired "a goddamn retarded kid"), now black and white alike patronize Whole Foods. First act Karl asked Albert condescendingly whether he skied; second act Kevin most certainly does. He also travels the world with Lena. All these characters are hyper-aware of race and walk so gingerly that they're barely able to communicate at all. It's no surprise when racist venom breaks dangerously through. And the house itself no longer provides a sense of stability. In the process of being renovated, it's empty, echoing and transitional.
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Prejudice in Clybourne Park is close to universal. Betsy is treated by everyone like an idiot child. Kevin, so sensitive to slights against blacks, responds "Toro, toro" when he hears Steve's architect is Spanish. And there are ambiguous moments that beautifully illustrate the gulf between races. Albert's proud refusal when Bev offers him and Francine a silver chafing dish is admirable, but Bev is actually trying hard to reach out — and besides, the silver dish is beautiful. When Steve mocks the yellow ribbons stuck on SUVs, it's natural to agree with him. But Kevin's comment that he likes those ribbons because three of his relatives are in Iraq stops that response cold.
Curious Theatre has staged the Denver premiere of this Pulitzer-winning play as its season opener, and the production is stunning. The tech — Susan Crabtree's set, Kevin Brainerd's costumes, lighting by Shannon McKinney — meticulously illuminates the complex themes, and the cast is stellar, from Josh Hartwell's defensive Steve, to C. Kelly Leo, who transforms from a farcically comic but sweet deaf mute to a neurotic professional, to the dignified ZZ Moor as Francine and Lena. Erik Sandvold is a powerful Russ, and Dee Covington's Bev is simply perfect.
The Korean War frames the action, and beneath the jokes and evasions are deep and primal impulses. All of the characters are fighting for territory, home and an authentic sense of self. And Bev and Russ's much-mourned son, whose ghost haunts the house, was himself the bloodstained invader of someone else's land.