Race, real estate and world capitals

The cast of “Clybourne Park” (l to r) Jason Sharp, Joanie Howard, Deya Ozburn, Mark Peterson, Nikkia Atkinson, Charlie Stevens. The play, which runs through May 12, is a collaboration of Toy Boat Theatre, UW-Tacoma and Broadway Center. Photo by Hannah Rae Eklund

If you’re interested in the drama behind the social dynamics and the economic mechanics of the cycle of white flight, urban blight and gentrification (a process that is unfolding on Tacoma’s Hilltop), step into Broadway Center’s Studio 3 and watch the current production of Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park.”

The 2010 play is a theatrical riff on Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 “A Raisin in the Sun,” in which a Chicago African American family, the Youngers, struggles to attain a long-held dream of home ownership.

Norris’ play is set in the house, in the fictional neighborhood Clybourne Park, that the Younger family have agreed to buy. In Act I, the white owners Russ and Bev (Jed Slaughter and Deya Ozburn), helped by their African American maid Francine (Nikkia Atkinson) and her husband Albert (Mark Peterson), are in the process of moving out. Their neighbors Jim (Charlie Stevens), Karl (Jason Sharp) and Betsy (Joanadene Howard) arrive to attempt to dissuade Russ from selling to a black family. Russ, however, has reasons for his lack of concern about the fate of the community that he is about to abandon. The neighbors fear that the arrival of a black family will cause property values to fall. That fear of depressed property values is its own self-fulfilling prophecy. Fear of falling property values will cause them to plunge because everyone will sell out, not wanting to be the last one holding the bag. Hence, the dynamic of white flight – rooted in racism, but fueled by herd psychology and economic self-interest.

The cast and crew of “Clybourne Park.” Photo by Hannah Rae Eklund

Norris thus depicts the ironic fate of many black families who moved to better neighborhoods in order to improve their lot, only to become heralds of a new wave occupation in an economically depressed area characterized by crime and blight. It would have been interesting to have heard Hansberry’s assessment of the phenomenon. Unfortunately, she died of cancer in 1965, long before she could observe the outcome of the “integration” of neighborhoods.

Act II is a clever parallel of Act I. It is set in our own time, 50 years after the events portrayed in Act I. It features the same actors in different roles. Now, Clybourne Park has long been an African American neighborhood and a white couple have just purchased the house at issue. The new owners are meeting with lawyers and neighbors to discuss the demolition of the house so that they can build a larger dwelling. It is the beginning of the process of gentrification.

Now it is the African American characters (who are related to the characters in “A Raisin in the Sun”) who have objections to the new occupants. Lena (Atkinson) objects to the razing of the old house as an alteration of the character (i.e. the African American history) of the neighborhood. One can’t help thinking, along with some of the characters, that her objections are against a white presence, which will inevitably alter the character of the neighborhood. Changing the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood means an erasure of the history and memories that are important to the generations of black families who have lived there. Lena cannot recall a time when Clybourne Park was not an African American neighborhood. Part of the tragedy of the American ethnic patchwork is that no group cares to hold the memory of another group as possession of swaths of real estate change hands through the generations.

The house in the play, the interior of which forms the set, is shown in a state of transition. Like the house in the play, America itself is continually a work in progress. The constant shifting of the socio-cultural and economic landscape leaves the characters without any stable footing. Each one is trying to negotiate a precarious scenario of shifting fortunes and social rules. Norris is a keen social critic as well as a great humorist. He skewers politically correct, liberal-identified people who know the correct attitudes to adopt and the correct opinions to espouse, but who are, in the end, as self-interested as everybody everywhere. Norris is also known for his gleeful denial of a place of refuge for his audience. Are any of the characters really correct? Are any of them really wrong? No one is spared, yet all have redeeming qualities.

This production utilizes the talents of some of the best of the region’s acting talent. Ozburn and Slaughter are always a delight to watch. The two played a married couple in Tacoma Little Theater’s “Blythe Spirit” earlier this season. Atkinson, who acted (along with Ozburn) in a Toy Boat/UWT production of “Water by the Spoonful,” has a wide range: the deferential maid Francine in Act I and the defiant Lena in Act II. Peterson, likewise, runs the gamut from the stern and stalwart Albert of Act I to the sometimes jovial, sometimes prickly Kevin of Act II.

Rogers High School junior Charlie Stevens plays a trio of roles, gathering laughter as Jim in Act I and Tom in Act II. He also plays the tragic figure of Kenneth in a coda scene. Howard and Sharp play a married couple in both acts of the play. Sharp is comically sharp, while Howard is delightfully volatile as the super politically correct gentrifier of Act II.

This production of “Clybourne Park” is a collaboration of director Marilyn Bennett’s Toy Boat Theatre company, University of Washington-Tacoma and Broadway Center. Bennett, who has a Ph. D in theatre history and criticism from the University of Washington, is assisted in directing by Lydia K. Valentine. Kait Mahoney and Jillian Mae Lee did the stage managing and assistant stage managing, respectively.

While it deals with some heavy subject matter, the show is so pithy and so alive with such interesting characters (well drawn by the actors) that it really bubbles right along. There is never a point at which it drags. This is a treasure of a play.

“Clybourne Park” runs through May 12. You still have time to see it. For more information visit www.broadwaycenter.org/events/calendar/eventdetail/774/-/clybourne-park

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