Play explores racism in 1950s Chicago neighborhood; builds off previous Broadway show
In 1959, A Raisin in the Sun broke on Broadway to critical acclaim, netting four Tony Award nominations. Bruce Norris has taken the film about race and racism in housing, flipped it around, turned it on its head and moved it forward 40 years with Clybourne Park.
In Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, a black family buys a house in an all-white neighborhood — and even before they move in, the neighbors are up in arms.
Karl Lindner, a member of the Clybourne Park property owners association, visits the buyers, suggesting that “Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.”
Clybourne Park, on Broadway now, is set in that very same house. It is “sort of a parallel play,” explains playwright Bruce Norris. Act 1, set in 1959, picks up Hansberry’s character Lindner, now trying to convince the white owners to void the sale. Act 2 picks up in 2009. The house and the neighborhood have long been black-owned. But now white owners plan to raze the building, and members of the black property owners association protest the gentrification they fear will ruin the neighborhood.
Listen to an extended interview with Norris at Studio360.org.
In both eras, Norris’ characters haltingly discuss the significance of who owns the house, and it quickly devolves into a confused shouting match that exposes prejudices on both sides.
The play is a frank, even inflammatory conversation about race and class, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010.
“It was very important to me to depict the people in 1959 as people with good intentions,” Norris said. “They’re not racists in the KKK way — they’re people who think that they’re doing the right thing to protect their neighborhood and their children and their real estate values. But that’s a form of self-interest that has as its unfortunate byproduct a really racist outcome.”
There’s no “good guy” in Clybourne Park.
“Audiences have this sort of childlike need to identify who their hero is in a story and to root for them and get behind them,” Norris said. “And one of my favorite things to do as a writer is to confound that impulse.”
Norris began his career in theater as an actor, but that quickly proved to be the wrong calling.
“Because I'm a very difficult, contrary, unpleasant, irritating human being, I’m not the right psychological type to be an actor," he said.
Clybourne Park, like many of Norris’ other plays, came out of a disagreement with friends.
“I tend to get in arguments with people a lot,” he said. “And more often than not I lose the argument. So I go home and I stew about why I lost. And after I stew for a long enough time, I divide the argument up between various voices, various people. And that’s usually the genesis of a play. It’s the endless contentious replay of the argument in my head.”
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