‘Clybourne Park’ sparks racial conversations


Photo by Dallas Linger.

Claire Brown

Appalachian State University’s theater department produced “Clybourne Park,” Bruce Norris’ 2010 response to Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 classic “A Raisin in the Sun.” This play attempts to spark conversation of important social issues in the context of modern society from Feb. 24-27 at Valborg Theatre.

This play is split into two acts which occur 50 years apart from one another. Although the set, clothing and language is changed, the same issues are shown transcending the barrier which is usually set from one act to the next in a play.

In Act I, which is set in 1959, Norris takes Hansberry’s plot line and shows it from the view of the Stollers, the white family who is moving out of the house that the Youngers, from “A Raisin in the Sun,” plan to move into. This act exemplifies two different examples of racism. There is blatant racism from Karl Lindner, the spokesperson for the Clybourne Park “welcoming committee” who is attempting to keep the Youngers, a black family, from moving into the area. But there is also subtle, institutionalized racism being exemplified by Bev Stoller, who is the white woman who lives in the house being sold.

Act II skips 50 years and plunges the audience into the year 2009. Here, the audience finds the same actors portraying different characters. These characters, explicitly Steve, a white man who is attempting to tear down and rebuild the Stoller house and accuses the black woman Lena of being racist towards the white people in the room, bring racism to the forefront of the conversation.

“It’s happening at the same time as ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ is happening, only we’re getting the caucasian perspective, the people who are selling the house to the Youngers,” junior theatre arts major Jenna Tonsor said in regards to the revamping of Hansberry’s plot line in Act I. In Act I, Tonsor portrays Betsy Lindner, Karl Linder’s pregnant, deaf wife. In Act II, Tonsor portrays Lindsey, Steve’s pregnant wife.

Related: ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ celebrates Black History Month

Amidst offerings of iced tea, light chatter and the peculiar discussion of capital cities from other countries which spans both acts, this play examines many social issues. The two factions of the play collide to send the message that, although society claims to have come a long way in the discussion of things such as gentrification, racism and suicide, the conversation has not progressed nearly as much as it should have.

Sonyé Randolph, the Equal Opportunity and Title IX investigator in the Office of Equity, Diversity and Compliance, Elisabeth Cavallaro, the suicide prevention program coordinator in Counseling and Psychological Services at Appalachian State University and Greg McClure, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and former Appalachian State University student, were the three figureheads who formed the panel for Sunday’s after-performance discussion. They all agreed that there has not been significant enough progress in the discussions of these social issues.

“We really have not come that far, or maybe as far as we think,” Randolph said of racism. “I still think that we are kind of behind the times. People are still afraid to have a conversation about race.”

Tonsor said that “A Raisin in the Sun” is a play about heritage, upward mobility and aspirations for a better life, and many of these themes can also be seen in “Clybourne Park.”

“‘Clybourne Park’s’ main focus, I believe, is to showcase that we are not nearly as progressive as we’d like to think we are,” Tonsor said. “That the same prejudices and racism that were prominent in 1959 are still just as lucrative and prevalent and still around in 2009.”

In addition to a discussion about racism, the play includes a character who has committed suicide. The characters throughout both acts portray this as something that is unspeakable. The unspeakable nature of suicide within this play directly correlates with how society treats the subject of suicide in general.

Cavallaro said that the conversation about suicide is too often overlooked, and suicide is often misrepresented on television shows and in the media.

She said that most who commit suicide do not actually leave notes to explain their actions, and there are many other generalizations made about suicides. In addition to this, she said that there is not enough focus placed on those who have survived the suicidal thoughts, and promoting positive stories stemming from this dark place is a way to combat the ever-rising suicide numbers.

“I think the way we talk about suicide in the media is exactly like this,” Cavallaro said. “We’re not talking about it the way it needs to be talked about.”

McClure added to the conversation.

“I struggle with feeling like we’ve made significant progress,” he said in regards to the social issues presented in the play.

This discussion about the way society approaches issues such as racism, suicide and gentrification was brought about because of the contents of this play. And this play covers more social issues in addition to those which are explicitly stated.

“There is no political value in having sensitive feelings about the world,” Norris said in an interview with London’s “Observer” in 2007. “I don’t think it generates political action. You go, you watch, you say, ‘That’s sad,’ and then you go for a steak. The best you can hope for is to make people slightly uncomfortable.”

As told by reactions of the audience, it is clear that there are some unnerving statements made in this play in regards to some sensitive subjects. The audience experiences the theater being used as a catalyst to begin conversations and spark change on how society views these subjects.

“In this day and age, we have to use different mediums to speak to people on different levels,” Randolph said.

“The idea of sitting down with my friends and openly talking about issues like race, marginalization of women or marginalization of people with disabilities and actually having that conversation in a professional setting with people whom we don’t usually talk to about it was something that really drew me to the process,” Tywuane “T.J.” Lewis, junior theater arts major, said.

Related opinion: The arts can help us talk about race more effectively

In Act I, Lewis portrayed Albert, a black man who is the husband of Francine, the Stollers’ housemaid. In Act II, he portrayed  Kevin, the husband of Lena Younger’s great niece.

Every detail was tended to in the production of this play. The stage set-up, which is the living room of the Stoller house in Act I, undergoes a 50-year transformation in the span of 15 minutes. During the intermission, when this change takes place, music produced from 1959-2009 was played over the speakers. Recognizable tunes such as “Stop in the Name of Love” by the Supremes from 1965, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the 1985 musical “Les Miserables” and “I’ll Be There For You,” the “Friends” theme song from 2001 were used to show the transition of the years.

Aaron Scotch, a senior theater performance major and the actor who portrayed Karl in Act I and Steve in Act II, said, “It’s almost genius in the way Bruce Norris constructed the world that we view in ‘Clybourne Park.’”

By showing audience members the outcome of Hansberry’s story and by answering so many questions left unanswered by “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Clybourne Park” gives its readers and viewers a chance to see how the topics that were so heavy and predominant in 1959 have changed, or been left unchanged, in the years since the 1950s.

“Clybourne Park” proved an effective stimulant of discussions such as the one which was held after Sunday’s matinee performance of the play. With an audience of mixed age, race and social status in attendance, the same question was posed to all from the stage of the Valborg Theatre: How far has society really come?

Story by: Claire Brown, A&E Reporter

Photo by: Dallas Linger, Photo Editor