In Lorraine Hansberry's 1950s classic, A RAISIN IN THE SUN, the proud matriarch of a Black Chicago family takes the life insurance money left to her and puts a down payment on a house in a suburb, Clybourne Park. This will be the home she has dreamed of for her children and grandson. Enter the one white character in the play, Karl Lindner from the Clybourne Park Citizen's Committee, to try to buy off the Youngers to save the property values in his all white community. At the end, the Youngers decide to move, to follow the American dream of suburban home owning. In the play Hansberry is dramatizing the battles her father fought for equal housing for African-Americans.
Bruce Norris's CLYBOURNE PARK shows us the other side of Hansberry's story. We are in the living room of the home the Youngers want to buy. Everything is packed up as Russ and Bev get ready to move to another suburban home. They are eager to sell their house even at a bargain price because it holds too many horrible memories. Their son, a damaged Korean War, hung himself in the bedroom. Russ has been in a depression ever since and Bev is desperately unhappy. The move may not be the therapy they need. Enter Karl Lindner and his deaf, pregnant wife and a fatuous minister. Karl is eager to stop the sale at any price. Eventually Russ explodes and all the bitterness and anger he has felt since his son's death pours out. The couples' Black maid and her husband are forced to watch this display of racism, grief and fury. No one is happy or happily married.
In Act II, it is the present and a white yuppie couple has bought the now derelict house and wants to tear it down to build a McMansion. "No one is questioning your ethics at all," the Black woman says to the white woman who wants to put up the new house, "What we're questioning is your taste." Could a Black woman say anything more devastating to whites who think they're improving the neighborhood? The Blacks who take great pride in their neighborhood want to stop this too big house from being built. A meeting is held with the buyers, the Black couple (the wife is a descendant of the Youngers), the real estate agent and a lawyer who is a descendant of the Lindners. Eventually racial hostilities build up and an exchange of racist jokes becomes a means of unleashing hostility. All this is both serious and savagely funny.
CLYBOURNE PARK is spot on it its presentation of racism in Obama's America in which denying the President's citizenship is a way of expressing racial hatred. And this production, directed by Royal Court artistic director, Dominic Cooke is perfect. When did British actors get so good at America accents? Twenty years ago they all did an approximation of quasi Bronx accents. Now they all sound middle-American, like High Laurie in HOUSE. Martin Freeman is superb as Lindner and the home buying husband in Act II. He's decent and a bit nebbishy until the hostility spews out. Freeman is a fine comic actor who is now in the spotlight for his Dr. Watson in the clever new tv series, SHERLOCK. Here he really modulates both roles beautifully. Sophie Thompson is deeply moving as the poor wife who has lost her son and finds it impossible to live with her depressed husband. The entire ensemble is excellent.
CLYBOURNE PARK is one of the finest American plays of recent years. Where has it been? I know it was produced by Wooly Mammoth in Washington and Playwrights Horizons in New York, but why hasn't it won major awards?