Lindsey, who wants to build a big new house in an old neighborhood, is meeting with some concerned future neighbors. She’s pregnant, worked up, adamant. The minefield-riddled battlefield onto which she has stumbled is not a place she wants, or is prepared, to be.
Then again, how many among us, beyond professional political pundits or shock jocks, really want to get into honest discussions about race?
But here Lindsey is — an assertive and upscale white woman trying to weigh in on the issue without triggering any explosions — in the wonderfully compelling Fresno State production of the barbed and funny play “Clybourne Park,” flailing away with the rest of the “combatants” as she discusses the gentrification of a certain Chicago neighborhood.
She’s trying to expand upon the changes in that neighborhood, the declines in property values and rise in crime, without offending anyone, all while framing it in the context of the ethnicity of the residents. She’s trying to do a verbal dance, and she isn’t doing it very well. She stumbles: “And to take what had been a pros — well, not prosperous, but a solidly middle class, um … ”
“Enclave,” interrupts her husband, Steve, whose assertive charm can’t totally disguise his pouty, overbearing personality.
“And then undermine … the entire … economic — ” Lindsey falters.
“Infrastructure,” the pushy Steve continues, trying to top off the thought.
But just where is that thought going? Why can’t Lindsey’s words — the words of a well-meaning, well-educated woman living in 2009, with decades of scrappy public dialogue about race relations in the U.S. supposedly serving as a firm foundation for our shared discourse — come through for her?
Granted, I’ve snatched a couple of lines of dialogue without context from Bruce Norris’ impeccably written script, which was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize. But rest assured: As in real life, the characters in “Clybourne Park” don’t speak in eloquent, perfectly formed sentences. They don’t always offer well reasoned, cogent accounts of themselves. Nor do they really spend all that much time listening to what their partners in conversation are saying. As much as anything, Norris seems to be saying that talk about race — as uncomfortably funny and pointed as that talk is in this acerbic and raucous play — consists in large part of air so hot it can blister.
“Clybourne Park” is a spinoff of the Lorraine Hansberry play “A Raisin in the Sun,” but you don’t have to be familiar with that classic to get caught up in its cozy, focused world. The first act takes place in 1959, and one of the minor characters in “A Raisin in the Sun” — a man named Karl Linder (played by Austin Whitford) has just come from his visit with the Younger family. His mission was not noble: He has just tried, on behalf of himself and some of his neighbors, to bribe the black Younger family so they won’t move into his all-white neighborhood.
In “Raisin in the Sun,” the Youngers get a really good deal on the house they want to move into, which is never explained and as playwright, Norris gets to speculate why. In “Clybourne Park” we meet homeowners Russ (Dylan Jack Curtis) and Bev (Lauryn Moles, in a precise and thrilling performance), who do, indeed, have a reason for wanting to sell their house. As that revelation plays out, we find ourselves immersed in a slowly intensifying discussion about race, 1959 style.
The second act, set 50 years later, is only tangentially related to the first. Lindsey (an accomplished Kia Vassiliades) and Steve (Whitford, in a textured performance) are a white couple moving into a now mostly black neighborhood. Their meeting with Kevin (an impressive Ryan Woods) and Lena (Breayre S. Tender, with some fine, strong moments) — who appear in the first act as a domestic worker and her husband — is supposed to be about zoning and aesthetic issues. But, as the playwright so insistently reminds us, race becomes part of the heated conversation.
Kathleen McKinley’s brisk direction gives this Fresno State production a clipped, charged energy. Smart and blunt, the play begins confidently and ends even more so. A sharp production design (lights by Madi Spate, sound by Liz Waldman, costumes by Heather Sisk, hair and makeup by Elizabeth Payne) contributes to that sense of forward momentum.
Key to the feel of the piece is the house itself, itself in a state of transition as the play opens as its owners plan for moving day. (Jeff Hunter’s solid scenic design makes it feel like this is a house worth fighting over, though I wish Hunter had opened up a little more in the second act and figured out a way to really make the now tired structure look more thrashed.)
Important to the production’s success is the acting, which is very strong all around for a university production. Dillon G. Morgan, playing three roles, excels at all. It’s always a pleasure to watch student actors grow, and a standout for me in this show is Curtis as the first-act husband. It’s the best I’ve seen him at Fresno State. His Russ might be a bit stodgy, but there’s a real fire there, too, and it’s enthralling to watch Curtis bring the character to a slow boil.
When I saw “Clybourne Park” last year in New York — where it won the Tony Award for best play — I walked out thinking: This is a great play. I loved how Norris uses the same cast members from one act to another, and the intricate parallels between the two storylines. (In the first act, for example, a black man tries to restrain a white man from fighting; the roles are reversed in the second.) And I was stunned with how smoothly the second act slips into an explosive confrontation over race — a few conversational stumbles, and the whole thing collapses. The play is a beautifully constructed, grimly textured commentary on how issues of race still shape so much of what we are as a country. Like Lindsey, we know the words, but we’re still tongue-tied.
Happily, this Fresno State production left me with the same awe and discomfort. In the midst of a busy holiday season, you don’t want to miss it.
PICTURED: Dylan Curtis (Russ), right, with Kia Vassiliades (Betsy), left, and Austin Whitford (Karl), in a scene from the first act of Fresno State’s production of “Clybourne Park.” Fresno Bee photo by John Walker.