When Bruce Norris’ Tony-winning Best Play of 2012 Clybourne Park begins its run at the Long Wharf Theatre this week, the play’s relation to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun won’t only be a matter of the script. LeRoy McClain, who plays the part of Albert in Part One, set in 1959, and the part of Kevin in Part Two, set in 2009, joined the production immediately after playing Walter Lee Younger, the lead character in Hansberry’s beloved play. In Raisin, Walter Lee manages to all but destroy his family’s effort to buy a house in Clybourne Park, a formerly all-white neighborhood in Chicago. Clybourne Park begins with a couple, Bev and Russ, who are trying to sell their home, only to learn that a black family, who turn out to be the Youngers, has made an offer.
McClain, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, was last seen on-stage locally as Boy Willie in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of The Piano Lesson in 2011. There he was quite likeable as the feckless charmer who wants to sell the family’s heirloom piano. McClain thus has background with roles that focus attention on the weight of the past and on the hopes for the future in African-American experience. A focus Norris’ play very much participates in, giving McClain the opportunity to move from the passion of Walter Lee, whose every feeling is made manifest, to roles in Clybourne Park more detached, though very much centered on the same themes.
In Part One of Clybourne Park, McClain plays the relatively minor, though important role, of Albert, husband of Francine, housekeeper for Bev and Russ. Albert’s presence, as McClain points out, is telling for what Norris does in the play: letting us experience the outlook of 1959 on such things as racial and marital relations before jumping much closer to the present. Albert acts a certain role around white people, and the audience can tell, from his reactions, his discomfort with such social facades. McClain notes that, as an actor, no matter how restrictive the part of Albert might seem, he knows he “gets to have his say” in Part Two.
In Raisin, a man named Karl Lindner, a representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, tries to dissuade the Youngers from moving into the neighborhood. In Norris’ play, in 1959, Lindner is a neighbor of Bev and Russ, and he tries to dissuade them from selling. In 2009, the lawyer handling the effort by a white couple to buy a home in the black neighborhood that Clybourne Park has become is Lindner’s daughter. As Kevin, McClain plays the current representative of the CPIA who argues housing codes with a white couple trying to buy a house in Clybourne Park.
One aspect of Clybourne Park that McClain was very aware of, coming to the production fresh from Raisin, is Norris’ ability to give the audience the “earnest realism” of Hansberry’s characters, as we know them in 1959, without treating them to outright parody. Norris lets us inhabit the period, which is important for the contrast with Part Two, which McClain likens to the terse, overlapping dialogue of someone like David Mamet. The difference in pacing between Part One and Part Two, McClain says, “is like using a different set of muscles. As an actor, you get a thorough workout.”
The play, with its treatment of racial issues in both mid-twentieth century and early twenty-first, offers something of a workout for the audience too, and McClain feels the show is an excellent choice for New Haven, where neighborhoods tend not to be integrated even now. The play, in looking at the changed status of Clybourne Park shows that, while the owners may change, the fact of segregated neighborhoods remains. It’s important to the success of the production, McClain feels, that the audience “be aware of a certain irony” present in both parts of the play. McClain is very impressed with director Eric Ting’s ability to capture such nuances, in fact Ting’s participation was a determining factor in McClain taking the role, as he very much wanted to work with Long Wharf’s Associate Artistic Director.
When I spoke to McClain the cast had been in rehearsals for about three weeks and he spoke of the sense of “absolute collaboration” that was present from the start. The cast “all click and get along, hanging out together at Sullivan’s, spending time together, which is not an everyday thing with actors.” The camaraderie of the ensemble is crucial, McClain says, because of the subtlety of the play and because the actors who dominate Part One are different from the actors who dominate Part Two. The different styles and the different setting make for transformations that everyone must be comfortable with.
In early rehearsals, Ting and his cast would vary the order, sometimes rehearsing Part Two before Part One. The two parts of the play speak different languages, and the cast, McClain feels, are very much alive to the uncomfortable humor of Part One and the more direct verbal humor in Part Two. McClain thinks of the play as a “dramedy”—presenting “prickly themes” in a manner that is “subversive, funny, and passionate.”
Previews of Clybourne Park begin on May 8; Opening Night is May 15.
Clybourne Park By Bruce Norris Directed by Eric Ting
The Long Wharf Theatre May 8-June 2, 2013