Race Is a Laughing Matter in Clybourne Park
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Race Is a Laughing Matter in Clybourne Park

The Pulitzer Prize–winning play about race and real estate in the United States makes a Canadian debut that'll have you laughing as you cringe. Linging?

Jeff Lilico, Sterling Jarvis, Maria Ricossa, and Audrey Dwyer don't mince words about racially homogenous neighbourhoods. Photo by John Karastamatis.

Clybourne Park
Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street)
April 2–28
Monday–Saturday 8 p.m., plus Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 p.m.

The purchasing and selling of real estate is much more than a financial investment—it’s a statement about one’s emotional maturity, interests, taste, and identity. It’s a commitment not only to a home, monthly payments, and regular maintenance, but to a larger community. And sometimes that community can pose a bigger threat to a successful transition than unreliable movers or unexpected roof leaks.

Chicago’s Clybourne Park is the neighbourhood in question in Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer-winning script of the same name, on now in its Canadian premiere at the Berkeley Street Theatre.

Co-produced by Studio 180 and Canadian Stage, the play is inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun, about the challenges facing a black family that moves into a conservative all-white neighbourhood. Norris splits Clybourne Park into two halves. The first takes place in 1959 in the home of Bev (Maria Ricossa) and Russ (Michael Healey) as they pack up for their move to the suburbs. They muse about ice cream flavours and national capitals before they’re visited by the town’s pastor, Jim (Jeff Lillico), neighbour Karl (Mark McGrinder), and his deaf wife, Betsy (Kimwun Perehinec). Karl, the only white character in A Raisin in the Sun, brings the shocking news that the family moving into Russ and Bev’s home is “coloured,” and encourages them to abandon the sale (in the presence of Bev’s African American maid, Francine [Audrey Dwyer] and her husband, Albert [Sterling Jarvis], no less). They refuse—not only for the obvious reasons—and continue with the move.

Act Two takes place 50 years later, in the same home. In the intervening decades, Clybourne Park has transitioned from predominantly white to predominantly black, and is on the verge of another period of re-gentrification. The cast picks up new characters as Steve (McGrinder) and pregnant Lindsay (Perehinec) intend to demolish their newly purchased home, much to the chagrin of Kevin (Jarvis) and Lena (Dwyer), who are petitioning the project to defend the historical integrity of the neighbourhood. Lillico and Ricossa play battling lawyers, unequally concerned over the lack of progress the group is making in discussing the agreement, while Healey is a maladroit construction worker.

Norris’s script is razor sharp, slapping the audience with hair-pulling comments about cultural propriety fit for an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Karl’s arguments are infuriating, yet we all know he ends up being right about the effects of the incoming family. Likewise, Steve is the villain for taking offense to Lena’s explicit distaste for a white family entering her neighbourhood. Parallels between Betsy’s disability and the PTSD suffered by Russ and Bev’s deceased son are cleverly woven into the first act, while crude jokes show no mercy to any cultural group in Act Two.

There are no heroes in Clybourne Park, only characters struggling with their burdens—literally buried or exhumed—and their failed attempts to “live in a principle.” The acclaim Norris has received for the script is clearly deserved.

There are many important conversations at work among the characters in both eras, but with Joel Greenberg’s direction, the topic of race bulldozes over the others. Though it’s clearly at the heart of the play, the emphasis is so loud and heated that the play’s softer side, seen most clearly in a closing moment between Ricossa, Lillico, and Healey, is lost.

The play’s Chicago setting is integral, but an installation in the Berkeley’s lobby based on a University of Toronto study about our own city’s income stratification, Three Cities Within Toronto: Income Polarization Among Toronto’s Neighbourhoods, 1970–2005, helps bring the issues closer to home. Now that conversations around Toronto’s real estate and its dwindling affordability are as hot as the next novelty coffee shop, Clybourne Park has arrived at an interesting time for Toronto. As smart as the script and the performances are, we couldn’t say any of them significantly enraged us. Rather than getting frazzled over who was moving where for whatever reason, we were just proud of them for being able to enter the housing market.