*Author’s Note*: I despise the term “gentrification” because I have issues with its etymological root. Who are “the gentry” and does that make original residents peasants? I have similar issues, although not for the same reason or with the same level of intensity, with the term “urban renewal.” However, for the purposes of this post (and to make my life easier) I will use both terms, and usually interchangeably.
As a writer and performer, I have always loved the theater and (when time and funds allow me) I try to keep up with what’s going on there. So when Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park won Best Play at this year’s Tony Awards–after winning the Pulitzer last year–I felt a little behind (on my literature and my theater) and had to get to googling because I had never heard of it.
From my preliminary research, I was able to gather that it was being pegged as a modern-day response to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (one of my favorite plays, EVER–the book, the Sidney Poitier version of the movie, and Diddy on Broadway) that dealt with racism and gentrification. So, when discount tickets for Clybourne Park became available on Goldstar–if you don’t know about Goldstar, you have just been put on and you’re welcome–I had to go see it. So I did. Last night. And my my my, did those summaries sell it short!
Frankly, it was quite possibly one of the best shows I’ve ever seen,–and I’m not just talking Broadway–and not simply because of good acting (although the actors were great), but because the play was thought-provoking, incredibly bold, and honest.
Without giving too much of it away, the play is set in the mythical Clybourne Park section of Chicago, first in the 1950s and then in the present-day. (Grappling with two time periods. Don’t you love it already?) If you’ve ever read or seen Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, you might remember Karl Lindner, a white member of the neighborhood association where the Younger Family is set to move after they receive Walter Sr.’s long-awaited insurance check, who pays the family a visit in the hopes of dissuading them from moving into his neighborhood.
Well, Clybourne Park begins by telling the story, including greater and more obvious depths of Lindner’s reaction and anti-integration efforts, of the family into whose home and the neighborhood into which the Youngers would ultimately move. (Genius, right? Beginning a story by relaying the other side of where a classic one leaves off?)
When the play makes its way into the present-day, the same house and neighborhood where the white family had once lived and into which the Youngers would ultimately move, has over the years become become run-down; the neighborhood is also now economically deprived and predominantly black, due to the eventual “white flight” that occurred after the arrival of the Youngers. Thus, Lindner’s worst fears when he tried to stop the sale of the house have been realized. However, the house has now been sold to a young white couple who represent the wave of “urban renewal” that the neighborhood is undergoing.
As the young white couple responds to the concerns of the now-African American neighborhood association representatives vying to maintain the historical significance of their community in the face of the impending social, political, and economic changes it is experiencing, in the process known in many communities of color as gentrification, the play demonstrates great irony while weaving together both the mindset and dialogue of the two time periods. In doing so, it highlights the cyclical nature of history in the context of ongoing cultural and racial tension.
In this insightful review of the play that appeared in New York Magazine ( It’s great; go read it after you finish reading this) and is now being distributed as a supplement to the show’s Playbill, Frank Rich argues that through its blatant attacks on racism masked as political correctness, the play illustrates the myth of a post-racial society in the age of Obama. I would agree that it definitely does that. One character even mentions the election of President Obama when the racially charged yet initially delicately navigated discussion about the “‘value” of the neighborhood gets heated.
However, to me, the genius of Clybourne Park is that it tackles the cultural and racial hostility and discord in this country head on. It says what so many of us are thinking but would almost NEVER say in “mixed company.” It goes from having an Emily of Gilmore Girls feigned politeness and decorum to having an Archie Bunker meets Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing level of candidness to it . The reason the joke exchange in the play is so horrendous yet hilarious is because it speaks to all of the resentment, frustrations, prejudice, and stereotypes that people of all races seldom discuss and are often not allowed to let boil over except in the instance of some political scandal.
As is the case with many comedy routines, it is the raw and relatable, yet embarrassing truth of the sentiment relayed that most of us are laughing at, not actual humor. Like the audience in the theater last night (myself included) laughing at purposefully racist jokes, we laugh at the awkward inappropriateness of it all. It’s the “oh-my-God-did-he-just-say-that-out loud-I-do/say/think-that-all-the-time factor.” It’s the comedic courage in the face of our general polite cowardice that gets the laugh.
Imagine if black Harlem sat down with Columbia University real estate developers (and students and graduates who move in, for that matter) and told them how they really feel? (Honestly, I’m sure at least some of them have at some point, but anyway…) Being a native New Yorker, I can honestly say that I’ll never forget a friend of mine who was born and raised in Harlem who called me in tears as she talked about her apartment building being renamed and things changing before her very eyes. A lot of my fellow Brooklynites will tell you in a heartbeat that they don’t know anything about Prospect Heights, but they used to know Bedstuy and Crown Heights.
That deeply rooted and superficially handled tension is Clybourne Park.
Also, as I believe all good art and media should do, the play forced me to think about things from another perspective. As anti-gentrification as I am prone to be, until last night I’ve never stopped to think about how similar those sentiments might sound to those of Karl Lindner when he was trying to keep the Youngers out of his neighborhood. Granted, it’s the economic expulsion or “pricing out” of poor (and usually) people of color that makes me object to gentrification, but according to the play, Karl Lindner would argue that he was looking out for the economic interests of his neighborhood as well, so…
After watching the play, I realized that we are really all just looking for our place in this society (particularly those who have been historically, politically, and socially disadvantaged and are still grappling for true power and influence–and I’m not just talking about people of color–but I digress…) No one wants to feel like his or her space or home or way of life is threatened or challenged and that, I believe, is the root from which all of these tensions arise.
As much as we like to say that there are not multiple Americas, there are. We are different. We have different customs and cultures and that’s what makes us great. Unfortunately, we are often so busy trying not to step on one another’s toes (even as most groups get completely stepped on in some way in the process) that we forget to learn how to truly co-exist–no euphemisms, assimilation, or prejudice necessary. Needless to say, I still don’t agree with poor people of color being pushed out of their neighborhoods, but I acknowledge the need to facilitate meaningful and productive discussions that lead to true progress.
In my Aquarius idealism, I often express what I believe to be the benefits of an embrace of open-mindedness and true multiculturalism. So as Bev from Clybourne Park reminds us, rather than protesting against them, maybe we should all get to know one another’s different “dishes,” because as long as we continue to act as though our differences are automatically threatening, negative, and divisive and/or to attempt to minimize, nullify, or deny their existence in the so-called name of unity, we will get nowhere.