8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday | through Feb. 1 | Theatre Downtown, 2113 N. Orange Ave. | 407-841-0083 | theatredowntown.net | $22
Sometimes you don’t need to feel naive for considering a work of theater a public service. The latest local example is Theatre Downtown’s prodding, provoking interpretation of Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, the Pulitzer and Tony award-winner that forces us to examine the three R’s of modern life: race, resentment and real estate.
Both a companion piece and a sequel to A Raisin in the Sun, the play charts the change and continuity of the American landscape by checking in on the same piece of Chicago property at two crucial points in history. In Act 1, it’s 1959, and a white couple’s plans to sell their house to a “colored” family provoke panic among the neighbors who will be left behind to weather this supposed upheaval. Act 2 makes clear that the old crowd’s chosen response was flight: After years as a wholly African-American enclave – “ghetto,” if you’re nasty – the neighborhood is finally gentrifying in 2009. That brings in another white couple, whose scheme for rehabbing the property might not entail quite enough cultural sensitivity for their new neighbors’ liking.
The same seven actors appear in both segments, playing first the Cold War residents of the neighborhood and then the multi-ethnic millennials who haggle over its future. These characters are all connected to one another down through time in ways that prove more than merely symbolic. Symbolism, though, isn’t in short supply in either the script or Frank Hilgenberg’s knowing direction, with repeated words, blocking and bits of business showing how much constancy there has really been to our national “evolution.”
The changes may be more cosmetic than attitudinal, but as staged and performed, they still pack their own wallop. It’s bracing indeed to return from intermission and see the effect 50 years (and the stagehands) have wrought on Mike McRee’s homey set.
One also can’t help noticing that the first act brings characters out on stage one and two at a time to take their positions in a pitched power struggle; when Act 2 starts, six of the seven performers are already present and accounted for, all poring over the rebuild proposal. They’re all equal now, all “reading from the same page” – or so it appears on the surface.
From the audience’s standpoint, Act 1 offers a safer chance for catharsis. Daniel Cooksley, for example, plays a protector of Caucasian home and hearth who mouths all manner of “practical” racism that allows us to tsk-tsk to our enlightened hearts’ content. But his character in Act 2, the husband involved in the gentrification deal, may actually be more loathsome, his lip service to tolerance undermined by repeated gaffes that demonstrate his fealty to the myth of reverse discrimination. (In Norris’ present, cross-racial communication mostly consists of thinking we can now say anything we want to one another.)
Hilgenberg sustains a reassuring consistency of performance from actor to actor, and from one historical scenario to the next. It’s a particular treat to see Robert Wright – named Best Actor in last year’s first-ever critics’ awards at the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival – depict the African-American men of two generations doing their best to stand by their woman (Gabby Brown). The fine cast is rounded out by Pete Penuel, Leslie Penuel, Logan Curran and Natalie Reed.
Terrifically tense yet still often hilarious in a whispering-past-the-projects sort of way, the play isn’t one second less timely than it was at its writing, at the outset of the Age of Obama. And its lessons are far from uniquely Midwestern, pertaining to an alarming number of communities, including this one. There’s plenty to think about and wrestle with here – maybe as you take a nice, leisurely stroll down West Church Street and wonder what happened to your hometown.
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