Melle Powers

Welcome to the Neighborhood

Last year, the final play in the Long Wharf season—My Name is Asher Lev—went onto New York and recently won the Outer Critic’s Circle Award for Best New Off-Broadway Play. This year, the final play has already won a Tony Award and is a highly respected and successful play. In other words, Long Wharf patrons will not be making the kind of discovery that thrilled so many last year, but that’s not a complaint. Clybourne Park is so good it’s a welcome cap to an interesting season that began in the fall with the premiere of Satchmo at the Waldorf. Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park takes its impetus from Lorraine Hansberry’s famous play A Raisin in the Sun. As you may remember, that play, from 1959, dramatizes the efforts of a black family named Younger to improve their lot in life—an inheritance may permit them to buy a house in Clybourne Park, an all-white neighborhood formerly off-limits. Karl Lindner, a representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, tries to talk the Youngers out of the purchase.

In Part One of his play, Norris shows us what Russ (Daniel Jenkins) and Bev (Alice Ripley), the couple selling the house, are like, and has Lindner (Alex Moggridge) arrive to try to talk them out of selling. Norris further extends the tensions by introducing a handful of other characters: Jim (Jimmy Davis), a well-meaning priest invited by Bev to talk to Russ who seems unable to overcome his grief for Kenneth, their recently deceased son; Francine (Melle Powers), the black housekeeper and her husband Albert (LeRoy McClain) who arrives to pick her up from work and gets drawn into the goings-on in the house; and Betsy (Lucy Owen), Lindner’s deaf wife who provides some comic relief to the situation.

The situation is that Russ has a considerable chip on his shoulder against his neighbors for their treatment of Kenneth upon his return from Korea. As Russ and Lindner face off, the priest comes between them and Bev tries to keep things civil. Francine and Albert, forced into the role of token representatives of their race, can only be made more and more uncomfortable as the argument unfolds. Key to it all is Lindner’s insistence that people should stay with “their own kind.”

Norris—with deft characterization—makes clear to us what is at stake for each character and lets us be the kind of judges who must throw the first stone, or not. Whose side are we on? It’s easy to be sympathetic to Russ, and Jenkin’s performance is naturalism to the nth degree. He simply is Russ and we’re in his house, watching him barely suffer the others until he finally explodes. Ripley’s Bev is brittle and bright the way such women often are, living mostly behind a façade. Davis as the priest is friendly and likeable, but subtly hard to like. Moggridge’s Lindner is first-rate: earnest, overbearing, aggrieved and comically stilted in his effort to be polite: the scene when he keeps speaking about not being allowed to speak is pitch perfect. The situation is so uncomfortable it’s easy to feel like a silent guest amazed at what unfolds.

As the couple in the hot seat simply because of their race, Powers and McClain register well the roles within roles devised for them—first, as hired help who are supposed to feel like friends, but not too familiar; then, as a different race who are supposed to be appreciative of their social betters, without being servile; then, as a couple who have their own differences about how to represent their difference from Bev’s condescension and Lindner’s racism. It may all sound very complex, but Norris is a wiz at getting it all in, and director Eric Ting makes certain his cast gets it all across. We’re with them every step of the way, without ever feeling like the points are being spelled out.

And if the pace of Part One feels about perfect, the pace of Part Two truly is. Norris is good at giving us the mannerisms of 1959—and Jenkins is a tour de force unto himself—but he is truly inspired in giving us “us”: the liberal, educated, well-meaning, self-consciously enlightened persons of 2009. The dialogue and its performance are so spot on, it’s easy to understand why Ting and the Long Wharf wanted to do the play: one imagines that, in a little while, 2009 may begin to fade away. We deserve to see the thirtyish denizens of the early 21st century while they’re still fresh in our minds.

This is great ensemble work and everyone captures the comic potential of their parts. Particularly effective is Owen’s Lindsey, a super-pregnant woman who crouches splay-legged upon chairs as if ready to drop a litter at any moment. Her delivery has the studied “correctness” of the kind of privilege under duress that may well be the distinctive characteristic of her generation. As her well-meaning partner, Steve, Moggridge is a wonder as the voice of reason in the lion’s den. He wants to take exception to his and his wife’s treatment by Lena and Kevin, a black couple who represent Clybourne Park, now an in-demand black neighborhood slated by economic forces for gentrification via white buyers like Lindsey and Steve. And once Steve starts down the path of picking at what he sees as racist assumptions on the part of the black couple—well, it’s obvious there’s not going to be any graceful way out.

Once the race card gets played it stays played—and can only lead to racist and sexist jokes aimed at nothing so much as the pretense of enlightenment. Lindner, in 1959, could feel entitled to speak for a white consensus—even though it annoys Russ and is an affront to Francine and Albert. But in 2009, the notion of consensus quickly dissipates. Even the couples are not united because sexual politics have a way of coming into play just when you thought it was safe to say “we.”

It’s still the case, even in 2009, that the black characters don’t get as much to say as the white characters—but in 2009 they have even more wherewithal to let us feel it. As Lena, Melle Powers keeps the comic pitch high—she knows how to make graciousness snitty. And McClain, as both Albert and Kevin, gets in digs that go a long way to show a certain amused detachment. Kevin’s anger, when it comes, is the unleashing of a street attitude we know he works hard to hide.

As a play about the social abyss underlying our riven culture’s attitudes about race and rights and belonging and getting ahead, Clybourne Park knows whereof it speaks. Everyone is a bit foolish, everyone is a bit out of their depth. As facilitators to the purchase and renovation that the white couple aim at, Tom (Jimmy Davis) and Kathy (Ripley) bring in further gaffes and gripes to keep things zinging. And then there’s Jenkins as Dan, a garrulous worker dude who has made a discovery in the backyard.

That discovery has to do with a further theme in Clybourne Park. Not only is racism, in one form or another, a staple of American life, so is the demand that some part of our society defend our society—which often means attacking other cultures and political entities for reasons not exactly transparent. Kenneth is not a casualty of war, but a casualty of demobbed socialization. Whether in 1959 or 2009, the conflicted feelings about war, like those about race, remain very much relevant, haunting and possibly shattering any provisional peace.

Clybourne Park is a play as real as any town meeting in New Haven, where the issues of who gets what is liable to come up. Don’t miss it. And if you saw it at Playwright’s Horizon a few years ago, don’t miss Eric Ting’s staging, this inspired cast, Frank Alberino’s wonderful set, and your fellow citizen’s reactions at the Long Wharf.

Clybourne Park By Bruce Norris Directed by Eric Ting

Set Design: Frank Alberino; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau; Sound Design: Elizabeth Rhodes; Production Stage Manager: Charles M. Turner III; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting: James Calleri, CSA; ASL Consultant: Karen Josephson; Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis

Long Wharf Theatre May 8-June 2, 2013