When Geva Theatre Center decided to stage Clybourne Park, they already had a winner in hand. This Broadway success, written by Bruce Norris, won a Pulitzer prize, the Olivier Award, the Evening Standard Award and a Tony. The problem with presenting such an acclaimed and provocative, even controversial, play is that it can be challenging to find the right director and cast to carry it off. Fortunately, Geva had no such problem.
Strains of 1950’s music float through the audience heralding the era in which the first act takes place. We meet Russ (Skip Greer) and Bev (Roya Shanks) a couple who have sold their house and who are in the strained throes of packing their belongings for a pending move. Almost immediately, we realize there is some additional undercurrent of stress between the couple that has little to do with the move, in spite of Bev’s light-hearted chatter seemingly designed to mask, even ignore the real issue.
Enter Jim (Jim Poulos), a man of the cloth, Karl (Christian Pedersen) and his pregnant, Deaf wife Betsy (Jessica Kitchens). Through them, we discover that not only is the couple – particularly Russ – struggling unsuccessfully with grief, Russ and Bev have had the audacity to sell their home in an all-white neighborhood, to a family of color. Add Francine (Kristen Adele), the family’s black housekeeper, her husband Albert (Dane Morgan Shelley) and a silver chafing dish to the mix, and the magic unfolds as the characters dance uncomfortable around the issue of racism, almost as if it were an elephant in the room. With exquisite timing, the comedy explodes when the characters, in trying to two-step away from “the elephant,” awkwardly land up to their shins in the droppings.
In act two, it is 50 years later, the tables are turned, and Clybourne Park has become a neighborhood of color. Neighborhood gentrification has now become the backdrop for our “elephant.” We find ourselves sitting in the same house we were in 50 years earlier, but it’s five decades worse for wear. The same exceptional cast has now morphed into different characters, some of whom are descendants of the characters in the first act.
For a while, the characters try to dance around the elephant in the room, but eventually, they jump into a full-fledge muck-slinging contest that is as funny in its comic punch as it is uncomfortable in its political and social incorrectness.
Certainly, when a theater decides to produce a play such as Clybourne Park, one of the goals is to present great theater and engage its audience. Director Mark Cuddy and an exceptional cast handle this with aplomb. To Geva’s credit, they take this goal a step further and encourage deeper thinking on the topic through thoughtful discussion following the play.
Last night, Geva’s Artistic Director Mark Cuddy led a discussion focused on theater and race, featuring Dr. Delmonize (Del) Smith, Commissioner for Neighborhood and Business Development for the City of Rochester and Carvin Eison, filmmaker and Associate Professor at the College at Brockport SUNY.
Mark pointed out that the scenes on stage quite possibly reflect scenarios playing out in mid- to large-size cities across the U.S., including Rochester, although often, with less candor and openness. Del shared that in Rochester, there is a tale of two cities, as gentrification of certain neighborhoods leads to the displacement of less affluent members of the community. He pointed out that, currently, there is discussion under way in Rochester by developers who propose building one bedroom condos valued at $200,000 adjacent to affordable housing units.
And so it starts. In the second act of Clybourne Park, Lena (Kristen Adele) points out how important the history of a neighborhood is. The prospective new owners of the house – Lindsay(Jessica Kitchens) and Steve (Christian Pedersen) – are petitioning to increase the height and size of the house, signaling a neighborhood movement toward gentrification. Lena’s words hold ominous portent when she goes on to say it takes only “one house” to bring about change, forever altering the tenor of a neighborhood. We see similar scenarios that have played, and continue to play out in Rochester as residents fled the city for the suburbs, then return as neighborhoods become chic, displacing those who stepped in to fill in the history of the past 50 years.
Discussion turned to Carvin’s film July ’64 and the civil unrest that took place primarily in wards three and seven over the inequity in jobs, health and education. It was noted that now, fifty years later, Rochester versus Monroe County becomes the playing field for the “haves” versus “have nots,” and those same three issues of jobs, health and education are the galvanizing issues.
In an interesting discussion of the decidedly off-color and politically incorrect jokes that are told (and that stare racism straight in the face), the audience had mixed reactions about A) whether the jokes really were humorous or whether it was the reactions of the characters that made one laugh, B) Whether the jokes would be offensive in all company or only in some company and C) If one were told them, and found them offensive rather than humorous, why one might be inclined to laugh anyway, or what might happen if one refused to laugh, signaling disapproval. Clearly no ground was made on this front, but as Carvin astutely pointed out, laughter disarms, making viewers more susceptible to the message beyond the surface. And there is ample laughter here to __ a play rich with messages.
If you have the opportunity to see Clybourne Park, don’t miss it! It’s a thought-provoking and exceptional production with great acting marked by impeccable comic timing that tackles the issue of racism with courage and humor.