By PATRICK HEALY
THE seven actors in the new Broadway play “Clybourne Park” were mostly strangers to one another when they met for the first table read of this stinging comedy by Bruce Norris in January 2010. They had no real comfort zone among them as they began to wade through the mudslide of racial indignities set off by white characters arguing about integration in 1959 Chicago.
Midway through Act I, for instance, the character Jim — a white minister in the middle-class neighborhood of the title — becomes tongue-tied asking if “Negro” is more courteous than “colored.” Later a white homeowner named Karl Lindner questions Francine, a black maid, if she ever skis; after a stunned double-take, she says no. Lindner jabbers that “there is just something about the pastime of skiing that doesn’t appeal to the Negro community.”
The scenes were so charged that the play’s director, Pam MacKinnon, decided she would never rehearse Act I for two days in a row without interspersing the second act, which is set in 2009 and includes new black characters who step up to the fight.
Even so, some actors asked for breaks to blow off steam. “If somebody hurts your feelings, you remember that feeling — it lives in you,” recalled Crystal A. Dickinson, who plays the maid, during an interview with the cast on the set of the play. “Now imagine that feeling 17 times in a row.”
A likely contender this June for the Tony Award for best play, “Clybourne Park” has had an unusually long and rough road to Broadway, where it opens on Thursday. The cast members had to come to terms with the discomfiting contradictions in their characters; Mr. Norris won a Pulitzer Prize for the Off Broadway production of the play and waited to see if it would reach Broadway; and this new production nearly collapsed because of a falling-out between him and a former producer. The head-spinning events often seemed of a piece with the whiplash from the revelations and did-he-just-say-that? dialogue in the show itself.
Typical of Mr. Norris’s style, the play takes place in two time periods. The Eisenhower-era Act I centers on whites preparing for the arrival of a black family on the block — and not just any black family, but the Youngers of Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun,” in which the move to Clybourne Park represents a dream fulfilled. Act II is set 50 years later, in the same house, as white yuppies seek to gentrify a neighborhood that has become a black enclave. (The same actors play different characters in each act.)
... That the production survived is joy enough for the actors to regard the emotional rigors of the play, during rehearsal two years ago as well as now, as worth the trouble. As they stretched out on the sofas and armchairs of 406 Clybourne Street on the stage of the Walter Kerr Theater, the cast even struggled to recall some of the earlier touchy moments — not for a lack of memories but because the relief of reaching Broadway trumped them.
In other words, the actors couldn't really remember any of this until the NYT reporter worked hard to dredge up largely forgotten memories. Or perhaps the actors made up these memories to give the NYT what it wanted? These are professional Broadway actors, and it was still evidently hard for them to initially conjure up what the reporter wanted from them.
... Perhaps the most vicious lines in the play are delivered by Mr. Shamos, both as Karl (the only “Clybourne” character actually in “Raisin”) and as Lindsey’s husband, Steve. During the pre-Broadway tryout of this production in Los Angeles this winter Mr. Shamos would hear gasps and even hisses at some of Karl’s lines, especially during matinee performances attended by school groups. After the first preview performances on Broadway last month some theatergoers moaned when the actors paused after a particularly harsh line by Karl. The next day Ms. MacKinnon, the director, cut the pause because she didn’t want the audience to have a chance to turn against the character quite yet.
Mr. Shamos said he was mostly able to shake off the audience reaction now but recalled feeling relieved during the early days at Playwrights when the actors would finish difficult scenes or go out to eat or get smoothies together. Rarely, though, would rehearsals or meals become consciousness-raising sessions where the actors talked at length about what the play brought up from their own lives.
“I think it’s good that we never tried to overexplain why we felt a line was offensive or overanalyze our reactions to the work,” he said. “We just wanted to be the purest communicators of the play.”
Basically, this racial anger among the black cast members didn't really happen, but NYT subscribers want to believe it did.
As Orwell, liked to say, who controls the past controls the future. My in-laws were nice white liberals who tried to make integration work, not fleeing the West Side of Chicago until their children had been mugged three times. By trying, they wound up losing half their net worth and my late father-in-law ended up with a 126 mile commute to his job in the orchestra at the Chicago Opera House. But that kind of history is unappreciated, to say the least. Nobody wants to hear about it, and especially nobody wants to hear any hard feelings about it.
This is particularly funny because the playwright himself identifies with the white people who were driven from their Chicago neighborhood:
ED: Why did the play coalesce around A Raisin in the Sun?
BN: Well, as a child, when I saw Raisin my point of identification with that play was the character of Karl Lindner. He’s the white man who comes to ask the Youngers not to move into Clybourne Park. That’s the character that appears in the first act of my play Clybourne Park.When I became attracted to that play, I always thought of myself as the antagonist, not as the hero.
ED: You identified with Karl?
BN: I identified with Karl and I identified with all of my culture, the people that I grew up around, as the people of Clybourne Park who did not want integration.