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Is 'Clybourne Park' drama?

Art Snob Blog
Frank Flavin

Tightly directed by Mark Robokoff, Cyrano’s production of “Clybourne Park” features good performances by local stage stalwarts like Patrick Killoran and Alex Pierce. But the reason to go is to see Jamie Nelson in the key first act role of Russ. Nelson successfully conveys a man about to explode though short mutters, spending half of the act in center stage sitting or listlessly fidgeting on a couch. When he finally boils over it makes for intense and masterful theater.

The other actor to watch is Anchorage newcomer Tiffany Allen in both of her roles, a born thespian with what seems to be a wide emotional palette at her fingertips.

“Clybourne Park,” the 2011 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama, is described as two plays, linked to each other and a third – Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” from 1959. In Hansberry’s classic, a working class black family struggles to make the move to an all-white neighborhood, including turning down an offer from the community association to buy them out. Act I of “Clybourne Park” takes us to that same house where the owners are preparing to move out. We get an idea as to why they are moving and selling their house at a cut rate that even a financially strapped minority family can afford.

Act II returns to the same house 50 years later, now abandoned, daubed with graffiti, slated to be torn down by a white couple planning to move into what has become a dominantly black neighborhood and trying to reach an accord with the current community association and planning and zoning requirements. The actors from the first act return as different characters, which makes for interesting theater in and of itself.

But it is not drama as I understand the word. People shout in the first act and shout much more in the second, which flirts with “Bald Soprano”-level chaos. However, nobody changes their attitude or learns a thing. They’re a bunch of self-satisfied jerks. Perhaps the audience is, too, because we don’t learn a thing either, merely revisit broad stereotypes that have generally proved meaningless and perhaps reentertain conclusions we’ve already reached. The main reaction for the viewers is to feel smug that we’re not those people on stage.

Hansberry’s play is nothing like this. Her two key characters, Walter and Lena Younger, the son and his mother, notably change and grow in the course of “Raisin,” she to her responsibilities as matriarch and he to his responsibilities as a man. Right up until the curtain falls, we care about what they will decide to do without knowing which way it may go.

For any play I ask what may be an old-fashioned question: Who is the protagonist? Who learned something about themselves or life and shifted their way of thinking? How did what I saw change my way of thinking? That is what makes a drama; that’s what “Clybourne Park” almost achieves at the end of the first act and totally lacks in the second.

It still makes for good entertainment, particularly when as well-presented as this show. And critics must see something in the script; Bruce Norris won a Tony as well as the Pulitzer for it.

But with respect for the opinions of the judges, it seems to me that at least one of the other contenders for the Pulitzer in 2011 – Stephen Karam’s “Sons of the Prophet,” John Guare’s “A Free Man of Color” and Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit” (the last touching on some of the same themes as “Clybourne”) - will be a more enduring play in the long run. Maybe all three.

Perhaps the prize committee was trying to atone for having overlooked “Raisin” back in 1959; the winner that year was “J.B.” by Archibald Macleish, a respectable enough parable that today gets about one staging for every 500 presentations of “Raisin.”



By MIKE DUNHAM