Song & Stage

Theater Review: ‘Clybourne Park’ Entertains as It Challenges

Clybourne Park, being staged through the end of the month in Quogue, offers a comedic and provocative take on race, both during the era of the Civil Rights Movement and in modern times, when for all that’s changed, much has stayed the same.

Penned by Bruce Norris, Clybourne Park debuted in 2010 before moving to Broadway in 2012 for an acclaimed run. It’s clear why the play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony for Best Play and the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play, though it takes the right cast and a seasoned, deliberate director to ensure none of the humor and power of the piece is lost. Thankfully, that’s just what Hampton Theatre Company has.

Director Sarah Hunnewell found a superb cast of seven, who all must double-up on parts.

Penned by Bruce Norris, the play is a spinoff of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 A Raisin in the Sun. To enjoy and understand Clybourne Park, it is not necessary to have seen A Raisin in the Sun, but it does help to know one thing: The earlier play centers on a black family that purchases a home in a white neighborhood.

Clybourne Park takes place inside that home over the course of two acts separated by 50 years. The first act is set in 1959 when middle-aged couple Russ and Bev, who are still recovering from the loss of their son, are preparing to move out of their home. Without consulting Russ, Bev has asked the local clergyman to drop in on him. Adding to Russ’s frustrations, civic leader Karl Lindner—the only character who appears in both A Raisin in the Sun and Clybourne Park—storms in to try to talk the couple out of selling the house to a black family. Karl even tries to get Russ and Bev’s black housekeeper and her husband to help him make his case that it would be a bad fit.

Matthew Conlon, who was most recently seen on the Quogue stage in Harvey as Elwood P. Dowd, delivers another great performance. In the challenging role of Russ, he’s must be jokey, standoffish and outraged—all while masking grief just beneath the surface. Hampton Theater Company veteran Joe Pallister (God of Carnage, Good People, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) is convincing as Karl, who is aggravating to Russ—and the audience—as he attempts to make his racist motivations appear benevolent. Ben Schnickel (The Foreigner, The Drawer Boy) as the well-meaning but often inept minister Pastor Jim, can really punctuate a funny exchange with his shock and facial expressions. As housekeeper Francine, Juanita Frederick is an effective “straight man” as a bystander to everyone else’s antics.

Shonn McCloud, Juanita Frederick, Ben Schnickel, Joe Pallister, Rebecca Edana and Anette Michelle Sanders.  Photo credit: Tom Kochie
Shonn McCloud, Juanita Frederick, Ben Schnickel, Joe Pallister, Rebecca Edana and Anette Michelle Sanders during the second act of Clybourne Park.
Photo credit: Tom Kochie

The second act is more like a second play. It’s 2009, and the cast members have taken on new roles. What ties the two acts together are the house—now rundown, like the rest of the neighborhood—and the theme of race. The roles have reversed, however. The neighborhood has become predominantly black over the past five decades, and now a white couple is moving in. Community activists fear their neighborhood is being gentrified with no regard for history.

In 1959, the house was well-kept, but cluttered with moving boxes. In 2009, it’s vandalized, with no furniture but a few crates and mixed-matched chairs. That’s all the seating that’s needed to accommodate the neighborhood association representatives, the new owners and the attorneys there to mediate. The affluent new owners want to tear down the house to make way for something bigger, and that doesn’t sit well with the neighbors.

Cellphones and side talk keep putting off the matter at hand, and the way the parties interact during casual conversation foreshadows the inevitable.

Conversations on race maintain some semblance of politeness in the first act, even while the content is ugly. Come the second act, characters decide to tip-toe around race for a while, opting for thinly veiled euphemisms, before they shun political correctness and say exactly what they are feeling. It’s unsettling for the audience, because frank discussions concerning race and racism aren’t refreshing, they’re uncomfortable.

Clybourne Park is staged Thursdays and Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through March 29 at Quogue Community Hall, 125 Jessup Avenue, Quogue. General admission is $25. Senior tickets are $23, except for Saturdays. Students tickets, under 21 with ID, are $10. To reserve, visit hamptontheatre.org or call 1-866-811-4111.

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