Good theater should be a conversation starter. I’ve always loved the live experience of theater, the laughter of a full audience, the sets, the way actors bring life to a story—but I really love it when, after Stephen and I have enjoyed a play, we leave the theater in deep conversation over the themes and issues brought up. I’ve noticed lately that Portland Center Stage in particular seems to choose their plays with the aim of initiating a dialogue. In fact, after Friday night’s production of Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, we and the rest of the audience were invited to stay in the theater for a Q&A with some of the actors. And the same open dialogue is offered after almost every performance of the play down at the Gerding Theater. How cool is that?
Those who stayed behind for the Q&A had plenty to talk about. The Pulitzer Prize winning Clybourne Park is that kind of play. It's a re-imagining of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, told from the outside in. In A Raisin in the Sun, a black family buys a house in a Chicago neighborhood that happens to be predominantly white. In Clybourne Park, the same happens, but the family we meet is the white family, still in the process of selling their house but already packing and getting ready to leave. The action in the first half concerns the argument, at times hesitant, at times heated, between the family and members of the community over whether this sale to a black family should be allowed to go through. The second half takes us fifty years down the line to examine the subjects of prejudice and ownership from yet another angle. The Clybourne Park neighborhood has gone from predominantly white to predominantly black to that period of flux called gentrification, and this same house has been bought by a white family hoping to tear it down and build something bigger and grander in its place. The resulting debate slash battle, which includes the great niece / namesake of Lorraine Hansberry's original Lena Younger character, highlights not only how incredibly difficult it is to kick prejudice out of our souls, but also how feeble and muddled our attempts to communicate about it usually are.
We talk around it. We talk over and under it. We're afraid to offend and are afraid to find out just how deep our own prejudices might go. A question this play seems to ask is, what kind of racist are you? I'll tell you the kind I am. Not necessarily the same kind as the character Lindsey (Kelley Curran) who, at one point, blurts, "Half my friends are black!" and at another, "I even dated a black guy!" - but similar. With me, there's something inside that makes me automatically like a person more for being black, for being any minority. This is both an instinct and a half-conscious decision. For example, looking at the cast list, wanting to pull a couple standouts from the lineup to talk about in my little review here - which was a difficult task as every actor in this play was, to me, a standout - I found myself thinking first of Sharonlee McLean (white), who is both hysterical and heart-breaking in her roles, who perfectly exemplifies the overcompensation that I feel in my own reactions to race - but I found myself stopping and changing tack. I would talk about Sharonlee, yes, but first I would talk about Kevin R. Free (black), who in one of his roles portrays the affable Kevin with a beautiful just-below-the-surface pain and anger that the character doesn't want to face. It's a nuanced performance that gauges the way you feel as you watch the show - and, in a way, lets you know when you can be comfortable even in the midst of the rising tension - and when you can't.
But you see what happened? I wanted to talk about both actors but, because he's black, my brain wanted to put Kevin R. Free first.
Driving home with Stephen after the play, I tried to talk about this tendency of mine but kept falling all over my words. And I realized that I was doing what all the characters in Clybourne Park were doing throughout much of the show. Hedging and hesitating, being stymied by the weight of the topic. And that was one of the most fascinating things to me about the evening. Because beyond the heated subjects of prejudice and gentrification, Clybourne Park is a play about communication and the ways and reasons in which we avoid it.
I should also say that for a play with such serious and tension-filled subjects, it's uproariously funny. Even as I was deep in thought over all the issues that arose during the production, I was laughing my head off. Clybourne Park is a top-notch play with sharp, wonderful writing, and Portland Center Stage made beautiful work of it.
It's playing now through May 5th at the Gerding Theater in the (quite gentrified) Pearl district. More info is here.