Clybourne Park: an update

Dry tech today, so I was off seeing other shows and catching up on the e-mail pile. Our company publicist circulated a questionnaire that she will use to write a preview piece for one of the local online theater mags. Some of Lennie’s questions and my answers:

1. What drew you to Clybourne Park as a director/actor?

When I first saw this show at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company six years ago, I wrote : ‘Have you ever had this experience? A play finishes its first act, and as the house lights come up for intermission, you think, “that act was so polished and well-constructed that it could stand by itself; I could go home now and be happy.” That’s how we felt at the act break…’ That’s how strong this material is.

3. In his 2011 review of Woolly Mammoth’s second production of Clybourne, Peter Marks of the Washington Post said that “the play rummages, if you will, in the eternally unfinished basement of American race relations. It is a play about people thinking they don’t sound exactly the way they do.” Your thoughts on that? Actors, how does his second sentence apply to your character(s)?

It is ever a challenge (probably greater than the one I describe in my answer to #6 below) to separate what you know, as a person, that your character sounds like from what you know and feel is going on inside that character. It is a tempting trap to put quotation marks around what your character says and does, to telegraph to the audience, “I, the actor, am not this uninformed/foolish/nasty/hateful person that I am playing.” And I think that everyone in our cast has done a good job of stepping around that trap.

4. Another review quote — when Clybourne opened on Broadway in 2012, Ben Brantley of the New York Times said, “This play probably will be topical for many years to come. That’s bad news for America, but good news for theatergoers, as ‘Clybourne Park’ proves itself more vital and relevant than ever on a big Broadway stage.” That was two years after its Off Broadway premiere. Flash forward to now, four years after the Broadway premiere. Is Clybourne again — or still — “more vital and relevant than ever”? Why?

You betcha. One of the smart things that Bruce Norris does, via the echoes down the half century from 1959 to 2009, is to call out our propensity to slap a label on something (or someone) and think that we have understood it. The character Bev, in 1959, refers with some discomfort to a young man in her community; he has what today we would call Down Syndrome, but Bev has only the word “mongoloid.” In the second act, Kathy (played by the same actor), speaks briefly, thoughtfully about a niece with Asperger’s Syndrome. Will not audiences of 2059 hear Kathy’s words and find her just as benighted?

5. What’s the importance of the specific link to A Raisin in the Sun?

Well, perhaps it is a recognition of the potency of Langston Hughes’s poem, “Harlem,” from which the image is drawn: “What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?” That such a simple eleven-line poem could spark Lorraine Hansberry’s full-length stage play, a musical adaptation, and now Bruce Norris’s answer play, is astonishing.

6. As an actor or director, what’s been your biggest challenge with this show? Creating two characters? Recreating the house during
intermission? Something else?

Simple mechanics: falling down, safely, in such a way that I can fall down again the next night.

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