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.