Thursday, November 15, 2012

Clybourne Park - a review

Clybourne Park was the last presentation for our 2011-12 Seattle Rep season.  First impressions were that it was beautifully staged and the premise of the 2nd act following 50 years after the 1st, using the same actors in different roles, was intriguing.  Ending impressions were that nothing of import happened, none of the characters were developed enough to care about and the one personal, relatable event was largely ignored in favor of familiar rhetoric.  Then I found out the play had won a Pulitzer prize, so I assumed there was some intellectual or emotional element that I hadn't grasped.  I did some research at it turns out there was not.

In act 1, a familiar 60's era couple living in a predominately white middle class neighborhood put their house up for sale due to a significant personal tragedy. They are motivated to sell so the price is much lower than the market will bear.  This allows a family that would normally not be able to afford the neighborhood the chance to move in.  The playwright makes the family buying the house black, though we never meet them.  We are introduced to the neighborhood representative and his deaf, pregnant comedy relief wife, a cookie cutter minister, a black house maid and her husband.  Much dialog with neighborhood representative on how allowing a black family to move in will eventually ruin the neighborhood but the sellers no longer care what happens to the neighborhood and carry through with the sale after a brief expose of the their tragedy.  This could have been developed and explored further.  True friendships could have been torn and destroyed by grief and tragedy.  Secret vanities and veneers could have been exposed and ripped off.  Backstory and surprise could have been discovered.  There could have been healing but mostly certainly there would be rage.  We could have cared about the characters and what happened to them.  Instead it was merely a device to bring down the sale price of the house.

50 years later the same house is up for sale again.  The neighbor's predictions have basically come true in that the original white residents have moved out and more black families have moved in.  The  neighborhood has seen some hard times, but is now becoming attractive to non-black buyers again.  A while couple want to tear down the house, which appears to have been gutted and vandalized, and build a larger more modern structure.  The current neighbors are against the style change and everyone is meeting to discuss things in person.  we have 2 lawyers, one of them gay, the white couple buying the house, and the black representatives of the neighborhood.  They have no purpose or value beyond delivering their stereotypic lines.  Supposedly this all smoke and mirrors to the "real issue" but the only undercurrents I found were not al that surprising.  The oppressed, if given the chance, become oppressors and true equality is when everyone has the opportunity to be an asshole.  References to the tragedy from act 1 is tacked into the scene for no apparent reason.

Since we don't connect enough to the characters to care about them, the humor must be carried by the lines only, but all the jokes are expected, repetitive and not all that funny.  You can see the tension moments coming a mile away so when they do arrive it is more with a relief that hopefully we can move on now.  This play spends a great deal of time talking about, or around, racial conflict and very little time depicting it.  It's message could have been delivered, possibly more effectively, as a high social sciences report.  

I  did see a depiction of how the way whites view blacks has changed over time that I had not seen before.  Whites in America start out owning blacks in the same way they own horses, wagons, etc.  The predominate emotion was probably one of propriety, not fear.  Slavery was briefly menitoned but most of the above is personal opinion.  By act 1, Whites are afraid of Blacks as a social group for the danger they represent to the status quo.  In act 2, white people are personally afraid of black people.  I did not find a reference to this in any other review so maybe it is just me.  There are a couple of clever tricks; the time change between the acts with the same actors playing "different" roles.  Also it supposed to be a "what if" extension to "A Raisin In The Sun".

The only other sub point of note is that everyone in this play, including the playwright, completely disregard the one personal, human and emotional event in favor of focusing on vague social and monetary concerns.  Maybe this was a statement on people and society in general, but again I was not able to find ind any reference to it in a review.

Overall this was not a satisfying experiencing.  Research indicates that it was probably due to the nature of the play itself rather than the actors or production of this particular performance.

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