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“There’s no way to escape the fact that I’m a racist,” Bruce Norris told New York magazine this February, two months before his play Clybourne Park won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. During his childhood, his family fled Houston in part because of school busing; until he was about 14, Norris said, his main exposure to African Americans was his family’s maid.
This revelation shouldn’t make audiences think less of Norris’ play, which was a massive hit at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in 2010 and has returned there this summer for a string of sellouts. (It runs through Aug. 14.) It’s a smart and witty work, a humorous consideration of white flight and gentrification that upends stereotypes of numerous groups.
In plumbing the racial anxieties that arise when neighborhoods experience profound demographic change, Norris borrows his characters and setting from one of the American theater canon’s greatest treatments of the topic, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. But in riffing on Raisin—and in exploring the ways in which both white and black people talk about race, as well as working through his own anxieties about racism—Norris sidesteps the very real issues of the African-American experience raised in Hansberry’s play.
In 1959, A Raisin in the Sun took American theater by storm with its indictment of the idea of economic mobility, which for many nonwhite Americans existed at arm’s length. In the play, the Youngers, members of a working-class black family with middle-class aspirations living on Chicago’s South Side, receive a $10,000 life-insurance payment following the death of their patriarch. The check symbolizes a second shot at the dream of home ownership. Toward the end of the narrative, the family’s matriarch, Lena, puts a down payment on a house in the fictional all-white enclave of Clybourne Park. Before the Youngers move to their new home, Karl Lindner, a representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, pays them a visit and offers to buy back the home at a profit to the family.
A Raisin in the Sun was arguably the first American play to offer a black counternarrative to the literature of the American dream. But Clybourne Park—as smart and well-written as it is—isn’t interested in Hansberry’s agenda of showing the struggle of black Americans to achieve economic independence.
The first act of Clybourne Park is set in 1959 and opens with the Stollers, the white family selling their house to the Youngers. The Stollers are days away from moving out when they, too, receive a visit from Lindner, whom the playwright endows with significantly more lines than Hansberry did.
We learn the Stollers are leaving Clybourne Park in part because their son, a Korean War veteran, committed suicide in their home. Lindner reveals that he knows the family that’s buying the house is black and says there’s still time to halt the settlement. The Stollers, embittered by the neighborhood’s insensitivity to their grief, don’t care. They agreed to sell the house at a significant discount, suggesting that they’re desperate to pack up and start anew.
Here, Norris takes Raisin’s one white character and places him at the center of his narrative. You can’t argue with the intention: exploring issues of race and mobility via the white psyche.
You can, however, argue that Hansberry’s legacy is lost on an audience that, for the most part, is decades removed from its high-school reading of the classic play. Hansberry’s black characters were humanely and complexly realized, with economic aspirations and legitimate worries about racism. Beneatha wants to be a doctor. Walter Lee wants to be an entrepreneur so he doesn’t have to be a chauffeur. And Lena wants a home of her own so the family can climb from the servant class to the burgeoning black middle class.
There are two black characters in Clybourne Park’s 1959-set first act—Francine, a maid, and her husband—and they fade away in the playwright’s hyperfocus on the psychological angst of the white characters. We see Francine as a repressed servant, not as a mother or even a black person living in a city notorious for its housing segregation. After Francine leaves the house following an exchange in which she and her husband are grilled about whether black people would be happy living in a white neighborhood, she’s briefly allowed to say what she thinks about the people in the house: “I think they’re all a bunch of idiots.” But the moment is fleeting.
The second half of Clybourne Park is much more Norris’ than Hansberry’s. It’s set in 2009, 50 years after Raisin, and it places in the same room a descendant of Lena Younger, who lives elsewhere in the neighborhood, and a white yuppie couple that has just purchased Lena’s former home and now hopes to renovate it. Norris doesn’t spell out the demographics of Clybourne Park circa 2009, but it’s clear that Steve and Lindsey, the well-off whites, are outsiders.
To Lena’s descendant—a middle-class professional who’s also named Lena—and her husband, Kevin, the house is a historic structure that ought to be preserved. Steve and Lindsey—and an entourage that includes a lawyer and a contractor—disagree.
What follows is a dialogue that advances from awkward, coded politesse (Steve and Lindsey are concerned with the house’s monetary value, while Lena and Kevin want to preserve its historical value) to outright verbal warfare, climaxing in an exchange of racially charged jokes, including this one from Lena: “Why is a white woman like a tampon? Because they’re both stuck up cunts.”
At its heart, Norris’ play is about language—about what words we choose when we talk about race—but as the euphemisms break down, we don’t get candor or nuance. We get zingers, lots of them, leaving little room for catharsis and even less to illuminate how to deal with the very real issues of displacement, gentrification, and racism.
In many ways, Clybourne Park is the opposite of Raisin—a comedy, rather than a drama, that deals mostly with white identity, not black. All of which might be fine, but it also raises the question of whether a playwright has a responsibility to address the themes of a work he is co-opting. In Clybourne’s first act, he largely fails to engage the racial backdrop of the 1950s; his black characters are props in service of a white narrative. The playing field is more level in Act 2, but amid the verbal jousting and laughs, any serious ideas about identity and prejudice become lost. For all we can tell, if Norris has a point here, it’s that beneath our lip service to political correctness, we’re all—black and white—full of shit.
The late Pulitzer-winning playwright August Wilson knew that the African-American story holds a great potential for being swallowed—and possibly exploited—by the grand American narrative. Wilson all but officially stipulated that major productions of his 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle had to be led by a black director. He faced accusations of reverse discrimination at the time, but his rationale was understandable—and maybe even prophetic.
The playwright took such a strong stance for these reasons: He believed black directors would have no opportunities to direct on Broadway otherwise. He saw himself as a cultural ambassador and wanted to make sure whoever directed his work got the story right. And probably most pressing: Because he often wrote about America’s long-standing history of exploiting black people, he feared his own work’s exploitation. Following Wilson’s death, his widow, Constanza Romero, approved for the first time a white director to helm one of his plays on Broadway.
None of this is to suggest that American theater should return to a bygone era in which only black playwrights wrote edifyingly about race, and white playwrights got to write about everything else. But playwrights should examine their intentions when they engage works that are steeped heavily in another culture’s concerns. If you’re a white playwright and you dig Lorraine Hansberry, go for it—but be responsible. Figure out a way to check your ego or risk committing literary colonization—silencing the characters of color, banishing them to the periphery.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Norris recalled being struck after reading Raisin; though he was affected by its power, he admitted, “the only character I could identify with was Karl Lindner.” (Norris declined to be interviewed for this article.) It’s understandable that a high-schooler encountering A Raisin in the Sun for the first time might not identify with the Youngers, given the racial specificity of their experience. But for a man in his early 50s, it’s mind-boggling.
For Hansberry, the human condition was inseparable from its details. “In order to create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific,” she once said. Norris’ play suffers because too many aspects of his black characters—their histories, their motivations, what they’ve faced due to the implications of prejudice and gentrification—are missing.
In the program for Clybourne Park, Kristin Leahey, Woolly Mammoth’s dramaturge, writes that Hansberry “stirs a portentous message delivered by Karl Linder: ‘I sure hope you know what you people are getting into.’”
Note to Bruce Norris: ditto.