A complex play for a broad-minded audience

By Iride Aparicio

Photos Courtesy of Palo Alto Players

The cast of  “CLAYBOURNE PARK”             Scenic design by Patric Klein
The cast of  “CLAYBOURNE PARK”             Scenic design by Patrick Klein

PALO ALTO, CAThe second production of Palo Alto Players 85th Anniversary Season, is a play that requires pondering from the white audience it was written for. Written by BRUCE NORRIS, who had been labeled a “provocateur” because his works provoke the audience, the play  is considered a “satire.” But when we analyze its dialogue, we conclude that it  may be“satirical” only for those people who want to feel better about  themselves, and prefer to ignore current “social realism” when they see it represented on the stage.


While the plot of Claybourne Park is written as a spin-off to  LORRAINE HANSBERRY’s  Award winning play “A Raising in the Sun” written in 1959, the only thing that both plays have in common is the reaction of  the white-American home owners living in an all white neighborhood, when they become aware that an Afro-American family bought the house that was for sale  and now is going to be their neighbor.

 While the  future amalgamation of  whites and Black people living in the same neighborhood in a predominant element in both plays, the  “problem” in "RAISIN" and "CLYBOURNE' is  FOCUSED differently so it produces a different reaction on the part of the audience.

In “A Raisin in the Sun” the audience is given a chance to get to know each one of the members of the Younger family (the Afro-Americans) from the opening scene of the play. Because of it, the audience can immediately identify with the family, sort of “team up with them” and even cheer, when the Younger do not allow the white tenants in the neighborhood to intimidate them, and decide to move into the house they just bought and start integrating the neighborhood.

Because in “Claybourne Park”  the audience gets to know only the white tenants in the white middle-class neighborhood; which are: Bev/Kathy (BETSY KROUSE) her husband Russ/Dan  (TODD WRIGHT) Karl/Steve (MICHAEL RHONE) his wife Betsy/Lindsey (KELLY RINEHART) and Reverend Jim/Tom/Kenneth (CASEY ROBBINS).

Albert Kevin (FRED PITTS) and Francine (DAMARIS DIVITO

Albert Kevin (FRED PITTS) and Francine (DAMARIS DIVITO

Since in this play the audience is never giving a chance to see the African American couple who bought the house, we need to side with the only people we know, which are the whites. 

Yet, and probably  to give the Afro-American point of  view to Clybourne Park, the audience needs, the play uses another African-American couple in Francine (DIVITO) the maid in the home of Bev and Russ, and her husband Albert (PITTS) who because both happened to be present during the home- owners visit, Minester Jim (ROBBINS) and home owner Karl (RHONE) address bringing up to light their disparity in class and education in their dialogue, to the audience. 

Because Francine works as a  maid, she feels intimidated by the home-owners talking with her, so when Jim (ROBBINS) starts asking her hypothetical questions such as: How would she feel about living in Clybourne park? she answers honestly: “I don’t think that we would financially (afford it)” and when Jim asks her “Do you likes the neighborhood? She responds “It is very nice” and finally when he asks her"would she like her children living there?  Albert, getting the true meaning behind all these question, interrups the dialogue by informing his wife that what Jim really "needs" to know is  how her family (being Black) would feel living next to white folks.”

In a speech charged with racial innuendos,  Karl (RHONE) points to Francine the “differences” between the white people and the people of color: in food, in manners, even in the way they worship with organs used in  the white people’s churches and tambourines in the churches of the Black. After that, he tries to dissuade Bev and Russ to back up on the sale of their house, by telling them that if  “Negroes” (Referring to the couple who bought the house) move into Clybourne Park one family will leave, then another and another and as they do, the neighborhood will turn into a Ghetto, and the value of their properties will decline.  Infuriated Russ leaves the room and ask Karl to leave the house.

The same house in Claybourne Park fifty years later
         The same house in Clybourne Park fifty years later

Sadly, Clybourne Park re-inforce Karl’s words. Fifty years later, in the second act, what Karl predicted, is exactly what happened.  In 2009, after Clybourne Park has become an all-black neighborhood, Bev’s and Russ’ house is so run down  that a white couple (represented by RHONE and RINEHART) this time in the roles of Steve and Lindsay) are the "heroes in the white horse" who are seeking to buy the house, raze it and rebuild it at a larger scale. What does the act tell the audience about races?

Directed by JEANIE K. SMITH,  the performances of every one of the actors (playing dual roles) are true to life, with Jim trying to act like a not very good minister, Karl, presenting  his racism with conviction, Betsy, playing her role as a deft woman trying to learn what is happening around her,  naturally, Bev, showing her lack of intellect by asking her husband why the ice cream he is eating is called  Neapolitan, and Francine, unable to understand the real meaning of the questions, while Albert is completely aware of what is happening around them. There are too much bigotry in this play, and  Russ, bitter with a neighborhood who denied his only son even a job as a grocer when he return from the Korean war and blamed him for what he did in the war as a soldier no longer wants to be part of it.

Clyborne Park premiere at the Playwrights Horizons in New York City on February 1, 2010 and has won several Awards among them the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2011, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the same year and a Tony Award for best Play in 2012 and Best Scenic Design (Daniel Ostling) And one can tell that in this particular play the scenic design (PATRICK KLINE) in the second act, speak louder about the Afro-Americans than all the dialogue.

Because of the non verbal images of this play, when one reviews Clybourne Park, one needs to ask those who have saw the play to ask themselves the following questions:. How are Blacks as a race, portrayed in this play? Were the African Americans presented as inferior from the white home-owners, or as equals? What is the points of view of the Black couple who bought the house? Why was it not presented to the audience? The predominant voice we hear in Clyborne Park is not their voice but the voice of Karl. and because of it, perhaps we need to ponder, because we ought to remember that Karl is a racist.

CLYBOURNE PARK will play at the LUCIE STERN THEATER , 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto until November 22.  One can order tickets by phone (650) 329-0891 or online www.paplayers.org.