It is tempting to be fooled into believing that we live in a post-racial America. After all, institutionalized racism is long gone, we’ve elected a black president (twice) and black culture is arguably more prevalent in pop culture than ever. We’ve come a long way right? Not really, asserts Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park – currently being performed by The Arlington Players, and beautifully directed by James Villarrubia.
Clybourne Park extends the canon of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in two directions. The first act takes place in 1959 and tells the story of Bev and Russ (Rebecca Lenehan and Dan Eddy), a middle class white couple who are moving to the suburbs following the death of their son. While the play is constructed in a way that the audience doesn’t need to be remotely familiar with Hansberry’s play to follow Clybourne Park, an informed viewer would realize about halfway through the first act that the house Bev and Russ are leaving has been bought by the Younger family from A Raisin in the Sun when Karl Lindner (Derek Bradley), a minor character from Raisin enters with his deaf pregnant wife, Betsy (Katie Cristol) to frenetically insist the sale of the house to an African-American family will bring down the property value of his own home. The local priest Jim (Steven Giballa) and Bev’s black housekeeper Francine and her husband (Dejeanette Horne and Lolita-Marie) are present to witness the ensuing tension.
Act two jumps ahead fifty years with the same actors playing different roles. The house is now abandoned and derelict. It is revealed that Bev and Russ’s departure began a trend of white flight and the neighborhood became primarily African-American. Now, Lindsey and Steve (Cristol and Bradley), an expectant couple have purchased the property and the neighborhood is on the verge of gentrifying. Act two operates on the premise that the neighbors are concerned about the direction that renovations on the house are taking and that Steve, Lindsey and their lawyer, Kathy (Lenehan) have convened with Lena, Kevin, and Tom (Lolita-Marie, Horne, and Giballa) members of a neighborhood committee to discuss their plans as well as the historical significance of the house.
The actors move seamlessly between the two time periods – drawing comparisons to the two characters each of them plays where appropriate. Derek Bradley and Rebecca Lenehan both do this particularly well, as Karl/Steve and Bev/Kathy. Bradley works both characters into a recognizably similar tizzy when their biases are challenged in both acts and Lenehan brings an exceptional quirkiness to both the grieving and lonely housewife, Bev and the abrupt lawyer, Kathy. Katie Cristol nails every stereotype of the high maintenance Whole Foods’ shopper who prefers to be ignorant of her own bias and privilege- compensating for her husbands more open racism by apologetically insisting that half her friends are black. Her voice trails up at the end of almost every sentence like a question; A constant vocal trope among young women put to good use by Cristol to signify her character’s feelings of awkwardness. As a whole, the ensemble has great chemistry and the pacing of the show is on point.
I would be remiss not to mention the set design by James Villarubia, who also directed the show. The house transforms incredibly well between acts from a humble 1950’s Leave it to Beaver-style living room into an empty graffiti covered mess. The set is the shape of a house, but the roof beams are left exposed in both acts, creating a sense of unity between the two depictions of the house. The elements of the house that are left similar between the two acts are expertly chosen to draw attention to the cyclical nature of the two plots; For example, the layout of the furniture and a window seat left untouched.
The Arlington Players’ production of Clybourne Park is a huge testament to what an all-volunteer company can do – the overall production values are on par with any of DC’s smaller professional theatres. Clybourne Park proves to be particularly relevant to the current climate in DC – with regard to the constant talk of the gentrification of H Street and Petworth. The Arlington Players’ production is an energetic and witty satire that will have you examining your own biases.
Running time: Approximately two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
Clybourne Park plays through February 15, 2014 at The Arlington Players performing at Thomas Jefferson Community Center – 125 South Old Glebe Road, in Arlington, VA. Tickets can be purchased at the theatre, or online.