Clybourne Park. Racism persists, but the ways in which we feel and express racism change with the times. Bruce Norris's brilliant Clybourne Park 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. These people, who have a black maid, Francine, 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. Turns out, there is a tragic reason why they are selling the house so cheaply: Their son committed atrocities against civilians while fighting in Korea, and eventually killed himself in the home. 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 discussions 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 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. Act two is completely different: more overtly satiric, with swifter, often broken dialogue. Everyone's a liberal now. Everyone shops at Whole Foods. And all these characters are hyper-aware of race and step so gingerly around it that they're barely able to communicate at all. It's no surprise when racist venom breaks dangerously through. The Denver premiere of this Pulitzer-winning play is stunning, both in terms of tech and of the performances. Presented by Curious Theatre Company through October 15, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, www.curioustheatre.org. Reviewed September 15.
Ragtime. As a musical, Ragtime inevitably lacks the complexity — as well as the violence and darkness — of E.L. Doctorow's wonderful novel, but it still has a thousand times more intelligence, charm and integrity than the average musical. As written by Terrence McNally, with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the show is representational in style, with various members of the large cast coming forward in turn to narrate the story of the early twentieth century — and their own parts in it. The effect is panoramic, a living tapestry across which move characters both fictional and historic. A cascade of ragtime-inflected music powerfully illustrates the primary themes, which have to do with the divide between black and white in America, and the way the lives of all kinds of people bump up against each other in that vital, unwieldy phenomenon of the American melting pot. Ragtime tells the story of three families: a wealthy New Rochelle household, a Latvian immigrant and his little daughter, jazz musician Coalhouse Walker and his beloved Sarah, as well as their baby. Historical figures appear throughout: Emma Goldman; showgirl Evelyn Nesbit, who pops up to sing about the murder of her lover, architect Stanford White, by her husband — because what's an American story without a sensational murder? We also meet Henry Ford, the man who revolutionized the life of American workers; J.P. Morgan, forerunner of today's Wall Street profiteers; and Houdini, a magician who longs for a sign that magic is real. Latvian Tateh is fictional, but the formative influence of Eastern European Jews on Hollywood is definitely not. The most interesting and deeply imagined character is Walker, with his jaunty pride and willed blindness to racism, his dignity in the face of insult and then his violent radicalization. Among the many compelling performances and strong voices, Tyrone Robinson, tall and imposing, cocky and vulnerable, commands the stage. Presented at the Lone Tree Arts Center through October 16, 10075 Commons Street, Lone Tree, 720-509-1000, www.lonetreeartscenter.org. Reviewed September 29.