‘Clybourne Park’ questions American and theater history
by Armond White
If the award for Best Play goes to Clybourne Park at the June 10 Tony Awards ceremony, will it put the Tonys on “the right side of history”?
That particular aphorism entered popular speech during the 2008 presidential campaign (in a rare Obama reference to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), and its artfulness is part of the verbal gymnastics that distinguish Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’ drama about the language of race relations.
Playwright Norris’ inspiration for Clybourne Park came from the 1960 Lorraine Hansberry play A Raisin in the Sun. That landmark drama about a poor black family moving from an urban ghetto to a white suburb used the fictitious Clybourne Park as the symbolic site of racial integration and social mobility just as the civil rights effort was gaining momentum. Norris revisits Hansberry’s symbol five decades later to illustrate how social discourse has changed—so much so that Clybourne Park figures to win the Best Play Tony that A Raisin in the Sun lost to The Miracle Worker.
Does this mean theater culture has progressed? Clybourne Park is most interesting in its realization that contemporary discourse, in fact, puts us outside history, mired in the confusions of social fragmentation, political bromides and rhetorical deception.
The deceit of political sloganeering has seeped into the average person’s language. It affects the ability of Norris’ seven characters to articulate their personal and public feelings. A key lines asks, “Can we just come out and say what it is we‘re really saying?”
That question reveals mainstream American theater’s difficulty dealing with experiences that are personal flashpoints before being codified by politicians and sanctioned by mainstream media. It’s why A Raisin in the Sun has still not received its due as one of the finest American dramas (superior to the over-lauded Death of a Salesman), even among reviewers who glibly mention it while praising Clybourne Park; they ignore Hansberry’s deep explication of African-American life, missing the significance of Norris’ historical-aesthetic reference, his invocation.
Why didn’t A Raisin in the Sun win the Tony in 1960? The answer might explain what makes Clybourne Park this year’s frontrunner: Contemporary Broadway shares the same bias for focusing on white experience as network television. It is the mainstream’s manner to reflect a socially empowered viewpoint—the perspective that always controls what is “the right side of history,” as Frank Rich recently used Clybourne Park to normalize the wildly contradictory political rhetoric of the Obama era.
Thankfully, Norris himself won’t have it; his two-act contretemps omits Hansberry’s deep ethnic and social concerns, deliberately leaving out a third-act resolution. This reflects our modern political delusions as much as it satisfies the current mode for hectoring speech, aggressive posturing and judgmental belittling in our culture. Hansberry’s play derived from the moral and religious roots of social revolution, while Norris’s two-act past/present contrast anatomizes (that’s the pop term) our spiritual amnesia, a very real aspect of the Obama era.
“You can’t live in a principle” says one of Clybourne Park’s bickering personae. That imperative was proven when A Raisin in the Sun was a Tony also-ran and is still accepted even as Hansberry’s classic becomes a theatrical specter—like Norris’ evocation of a dead soldier—that the annals of the Tony Awards ignores.
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