Clybourne Park at the San Diego Repertory Theatre – A Review of the Friday Night Performance

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By Jim Bliesner

The first act of Clybourne Park, now at the San Diego Repertory Theatre is about “white flight” or “block busting” set in 1959. The second act is about “gentrification” and “new urbanism” set in 2009. In the first act a black family is buying a home in a traditionally Caucasian neighborhood. In the second act, the same house is being sold by a black couple to a young Caucasian couple moving back into the city wanting to remodel and add onto the old house. If this was San Diego the play would be called Sherman Heights or Golden Hill and cover the same period. The play is about a real phenomenon across the American urban landscape and alive today.

Underlying the context of urban transition is the issue of race and racial attitudes. In the first act it gets acted out as though it really was 1959 and the stereotypes we have immortalized from that time are clearly presented. They are so familiar they provide the bi-racial audience at the REP with opportunity to tsk, tsk, groan, gasp, boo, titter embarrassingly, and outright laugh.  We’ve seen them so many times before in other plays, movies, and growth group sessions they border on the trite. But maybe that’s what playwright Norris intended?

Actually the play, a recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Bruce Norris, provides a chorus line of stereotypical characters from beginning to end. They are all there on stage and each gets a “turn in the barrel”. Subtle and overt aspirations are alternately cast at mongoloids, deaf people, white guy in bow tie, black maid and her shy accommodating husband, dead suicidal veteran son, scattered and shuttered stay at home 1950’s wife, work driven business exec, ditsy blond,  outspoken black woman and financier husband, real estate sales people, invisible Mexican laborer (offstage), gum chewing contractor, bodacious young white guy, and his critical wife. There is even a doting clergyman (first act) who reappears as a gay real estate rep in the second act. There is no way that any of these characters could escape the end of the play without offending or being offended. The only character missing, based on reality, is the banker who did and still has a major role in creating the whole urban dilemma in the first place, although maybe appropriately enough they are invisible and not mentioned in the script; major socio-economic oversight on the part of the playwright.

The dialogue is FAST. Lots of speeches, so well spliced together that each character gets to be liked and disliked within minutes… up and down, back and forth. The actors/actresses played different roles for each time period (Act). The witnessing of their character transformation was spell binding. I especially enjoyed the skill of Mark Pinter, first as an irascible, given to tempestuous outbursts of profanity, disgruntled executive husband and father and then as a gum chewing, loud talking overly energetic and curious , uncontrollable handyman. Monique Gaffney, as required by her family pedigree, transformed butterfly-like from a silent, look the other way maid in the 50’s to a bordering on militant, educated home seller willing to place her culture on the table as a value item in setting the home price.

The sheer volume of dialogue must have been a test for the whole crew but right there, before the audience they chew on the words, their nuances and throw them full throated out into the room, line after line with exuberance and most of the time, meaning. It is worth the price just to see them perform this dialogue end to end; kept me in the room and on the stage.

The transformation of the set, designed by Robin Sanford Roberts, probably with some original art from artist in residence Herbert Sequenza would be my guess, from Act 1 to Act 2 creates its own mythology. Disguised in Act 1 to a be a 1959 middle class bungalow it morphs into a 2009 graffiti covered crack house with appropriate swap meet furniture, with large boxy TV and all.

Sam Woodhouse, cofounder, director and sometimes actor in over 250 REP productions has never shied form prickly material. He goes after it and got it with this piece. The guy is a San Diego treasure and they ought to erect a sculpture of him out with Pete Wilson, Alonzo Horton and Ernie Hahn in the Horton Plaza driveway.

The play continues to Feb 10,2013.


Jim Bliesner

Jim Bliesner is the Director of the Center for Urban Economics and Design at UCSD, a lecturer in Urban Studies at UCSD, resident of City Heights and an urban artist in sculpture and painting.


  1. avatar says

    Dear Jim- That is a masterful review of ” Clybourne Park,” critical where you needed to be, but complimentary to the acting and the production, for the most part. Following your review, I am looking forward to seeing this play as it brings back many memories from my upbringing in Brooklyn, NY, until my Mom died in 10/46. Following that, my father was the first on our block to sell our three family, brick building to a Black Family. They, generously, let us continue to live in the home until school was out at the end of June in 1947, just before we moved to CA. It was a wonderful experience to really get to know that fine family. Their older daughter, May, used to bake pies for us. It left me with a lifetime of gratitude to them, because they understood that we five children were in shock over the death, first of my little brother Vinnie, 3, and then, the following month, by my Mom.
    My grandson was born in Brooklyn 8 years ago, and my partner, Sarah, and I got to revisit my old Bushwick Section neighborhood. Our old home was still standing and we talked to the black family living there. I reminisced about some of the people I had known, and one of their responses was, “… you know, John, we were not even born back then!” Take care. John.

    • avatarAnna Daniels says

      John- thanks for giving us a personal glimpse into what Jim Bliesner points out as an urban dilemma. Jim’s review is enough to assure my attendance at “Clybourne Park.” I will view it with a consciousness of what you have said too.

    • avatar says

      Case in point and you will see it on stage with this play. Except in this play the clock has come full circle and now urban pioneers are negotiating to buy the house back and refurbish it and maybe build a little addition to it. So this urban evolution is on stage here under different labels and it is curious how the issue of race is examined “in time”. In the 50’s things happened and not much discussion. In the new century the whole second act is spent with everyone ons tage discussing the “elephant” in the room. Some things do change. But there are a couple of underlying elements to this play that I have not quite figured out. One is the Korean War veteran/son who hanged himself in the home and who;s ghost makes a surprise appearance in the second act. The other thing is the language used to talk about race. For instance black vs. African American and white vs caucasian. That negotiation spill s over into my review where there is the whole thing of what gets capitalized and not, Is it Black or black or is it caucasian or Caucasian or should it be white, or is that White? These language negotiations are a symptom of the non resolution of the matter in our society and they show in the drama. Listen to it. There is a whole lot of “gotcha” that occurs in the discussion of race that, to me is a hindrance to finding the reality of the matter.
      Thanks for the reflection and sorry about Vinnie and your mom.