In modern day, multi-cultural UK it is easy to forget that it wasn’t so long ago when some seemingly civilised countries still practised segregation. It may seem an alien concept to us but there are probably quite a few Americans who recall whites-only buses, schools, public toilets and restaurants.
Have we moved on? Or are we seeing racism in reverse?
Bruce Norris piggy-backed his 2010 play, Clybourne Park, on another writer’s work. It’s a fascinating, funny, shocking and confrontational drama whose roots reach back to Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, A Raisin In The Sun.
In much the same way that Tom Stoppard borrowed two characters from Shakespeare for Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, so Norris loosely based Clybourne Park on the themes and ideas from Hansberry.
Clybourne Park has been revived by Colchester’s Mercury Theatre for its inaugural touring production and this week it’s playing at Richmond Theatre, which sits in a neighbourhood that is, according to latest stats, about 86% white.
The first act is set in the white middle-class Chicago neighbourhood of Clybourne Park. Russ and Bev are in their living room, languishing in their parochialism and geographical ignorance, by debating the origin of the word Neopolitan (and, indeed wondering what you call a resident of Brussels which, frankly, had me stumped too).
The couple are planning to move from a house that holds terrible memories for them. Russ is depressed and it takes a huge effort to get him to change out of his stripy PJs. A shave is totally out of the question. He sits slumped in a chair working his way through a giant tub of icecream.
Their bigoted, racist neighbour, Karl, has discovered that the couple has sold the house to a black family (Hansberry’s Younger family, although they’re not named in this). It may be hard for us to get our head around this – or perhaps not depending on how old you are and where you were raised – but this was a seriously controversial in the 1950s.
The coloured people (“Aren’t we supposed to call them Negro now?” asks friend and preacher, Jim) are supposed to stay in their neighbourhood, Hamilton Park. They won’t fit in, they’ll drive down house prices, they’ll force white folks to move. Karl comes out with a one argument after another until he is shouted down.
The atmosphere gets decidedly heavy. Russ is losing it, the chipper Karl is refusing to shut up, and the cowardly Jim (Will Troughton) just wants to leave.
Fifty years later the tables are turned. The neighbourhood is now predominantly black and a white couple, controversially, want to raze Russ’s old house, now derelict and covered in graffiti, to the ground to build something bigger.
Daniel Buckroyd’s clever production uses the same cast – in different roles – for both generations, and the same house but, while time has moved on, it’s clear that the old arguments are still the same.
Race is at the heart of this explosive and darkly comic play and its writer doesn’t mince his words. Both in 1959 and 2009 the men take sides to accuse each other of prejudice, the only difference is the intervention of Gloria Onitiri’s forthright Lena who throws her own ballistic missiles into the fray.
In the first half she is the subserviant black maid, Francine, who is skilled in keeping on the right side of her employers, Russ and Bev. But Lena, who related to the original black owners, isn’t answerable to anyone.
Mark Womack’s Russ, is consumed by grief which periodically explodes as anger. It’s a beautifully understated performance which sees him drip-feed the audience the awful details of what happened to their brave young son who returned home from Korea as a changed man.
When he returns as a handyman called Dan in the later segment we wonder at the connection but all is skilfully revealed.
Ben Deery fires on all cylinders all night. First he gets tempers raised with a superbly animated turn as the intolerant and xenophobic Karl and later plays the equally discriminatory Steve who wants to gentrify the neighbourhood with his new super-duper architect’s designed des-res.
Throughout the play one side or another is walking on eggshells over the issue of colour and Norris’s dialogue will frequently make you gasp with shock. But isn’t that the point?
Clynbourne Park is a brave choice by the Mercury Theatre but it’s refreshing to see a producer be bold and courageous. There should be more willing to follow its lead.
Playing at Richmond Theatre until Saturday.
Remaining Tour Dates
May 2-7, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford May 9-14, Cambridge Arts Theatre May 17-21, Oxford Playhouse May 23-28, Theatr Clwyd, Mold.
Powerful, confrontational and darkly comic. Clybourne Park sees the issue of race and real estate clash in a blistering neighbourhood dispute.