Writer: Bruce Norris
Director: Michael Emans
Reviewer: Dominic Corr
The world never really changes, does it? The balance of offence, acceptance and hate simply shifts – given time, it will no doubt shift back. In a turbulent time, opinions which lay dormant are now unearthing themselves. Shifting from a culture in which the first black man was sitting in the White House, Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer award-winning Clybourne Park lunges us back into the late 1950s. It’s an intense, tremendously humorous and on occasion, profoundly troubling production.
Interlinking halves, Norris’ writing has a reflective element in evolution. Rather than a direct continuation, the second act advances the timeframe from Eisenhower’s America to Obama. Set in the same house, a recently bereaved white couple are moving, escaping the memories of their son’s suicide following a return from Korea. As the neighbourhood begins to realise the house has been sold to a black couple, the first to own property in the area, an uncomfortable fog covers the theatre.
Beginning jovially enough, quite a simplistic American sitcom, which degenerates with the arrival of each uninvited guest. Black housemaid, Adelaide Obeng plays a crucial role with husband Albert (Vinta Morgan) and yet, are mostly silent observers to the racism, debate and issue around them. Fifty years later, change has occurred in America. In the Obama election year, the same house, in a gentrifying neighbourhood now, is being redesigned by a white couple, who are now under scrutiny from the black leaders of the neighbourhood appreciation, but we realise that no matter we pack it, old opinions die hard.
Central to the play’s success is its cast, who elevate the script, selling the humour and controlling the moderate outrage which emerges from the audience. Eman’s cast is multi-faceted in delivery, each providing a wholly different character in characterisation, sharing a connection with their first act counterpart. Making drastic changes, Jack Lord’s shift from a pompous, hysteric white-collar man into a grassroots cap-wearing American places him front and centre of the action. His comedic prowess is prevalent, snappily ricocheting off Morgan’s or Robin Kingsland’s equally brilliant timing, but his characters outdated attitudes slither into a more sinister, echoing ideal we are too familiar with now. That this white man ‘can longer see himself in The White House’. Suddenly the once represented feel forgotten. A backlash we are still reeling from in recent years.
We have our pieces, now what of the board? Designer Ken Harrison’s set strips into a house in need of renovation, a fixer-upper to set the scene for the explosive conflicts which will follow. Quaint, the layout of the first act works perfectly to lower the defences of those unfamiliar with Norris’ play. Home to the delightful, if neurotic, Jackie Morrison as Bev, it’s her role as a mother fighting to maintain what’s left of her family, even if in denial, which offers conviction to the drama.
Hidden amongst the casualties of race, gender and American communities, there’s a study of humour running through the core of Clybourne Park. Particularly in the second act, just what we find funny is narrowing in what we also find acceptable. You will laugh at jokes you shouldn’t, or at least told you shouldn’t. It’s a wide pool, but there’s only really one gag which some may find distasteful, the others don’t cross to a British audience quite as well. For us, this isn’t risqué or rude, it’s rather tame, in comparison to some Scottish greetings.
Straying from severely radical, there’s accessible ease for an audience. Detracting from the eviscerating satire it aims for, it grazes, rather than slashes thoughts of race, liberalism or expectation. Norris’ script litters with insightful commentary and humour, which makes it an enjoyable watch. Regrettably, even in the nine years since its debut, its shock value diminishes when even Twitter poses viler commentary – a sign of the times.
Runs until 5 October 2019 | Image: Eoin Carey