Sunday, June 17, 2012

Clybourne Park is NOT a companion to A Raisin in the Sun

Clybourne Park is a Pulitzer and Tony award winning play by Bruce Norris written as a response to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.  Although I did not see the play when it was in Los Angeles, after watching the Tony Awards telecast, I enthusiastically took the liberty to read the manuscript.

I must say that I’m a huge fan of Lorraine Hansberry’s work and since Clybourne Park received such prestigious awards and accolades, I was extremely excited to read it.  The premise represented something new and fresh and I since it had been describe as "a powerful work whose memorable characters speak in witty and perceptive ways to America's sometimes toxic struggle with race and class consciousness," I was extremely interested to know the prospective of the White neighborhood and their intimate views regarding race and class.

In A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry’s characters are rich and full of life.  They are so well developed that what they have to say is like food for the soul. Her words defined an entire generation of people who felt undervalued and demoralized, yet still aspired for the American dream. The play is so well crafted that it still has relevance today.

On the other hand while reading Clybourne Park, I found myself continuously throwing up my hands in sheer frustration at the lack of integrity to Hansberry’s masterpiece.  I understand that it’s two separate writers; however there is no substance in the story or its characters. What critics have deemed as wit is really just the author’s lack of creativity and subtext. The story is superficial and frankly as I continued reading the manuscript, I found myself becoming increasingly insulted at any type of association with A Raisin in the Sun.

The premise of the play is fascinating. Act I takes place, not as a prequel to (as advertised), but is taking place simultaneously to the actions in A Raisin in the Sun.  Mr. Lindner goes to the White family that sold their house to the Younger family and asked them to basically renege on their contract.  The play further states that the reasoning behind why the house was put on the market in the first place was because the White family’s son committed suicide in his room.  Therefore the family put the house on the market at a reduced rate. It’s insinuated that the only way the Black family could have afforded to purchase this house was because it was reduced. However, it doesn’t take into account that if the house were undervalued, then why didn’t another White family snap it up since it was in such a desirable neighborhood?  The writer also doesn’t take into account that historically, when the first Black family moved into an all White neighborhood, they usually paid more than what the house was worth. (It was only once “White flight” started to happen, were houses significantly reduced for quick sales.)

With that being said, I also take issue with the writing itself. It was so contrived and uncalculating.  Nobody cares about the origins of Neapolitan ice cream or what a person from a European city is called.  The dialogue all seemed to be unnecessary banter because the author couldn’t think of anything of real meaning to write about. I would even compare it to a vaudevillian routine reminiscent of Abbot and Costello without the humor, originality or resourcefulness.

I wanted this play to have some ingenuity. I wanted it to tell the perspective of a White community who sees their whole world crumble at the idea of being neighbors to a Black family.  I wanted to experience the absurdity and be uncomfortable at the notion of superiority and how that’s reflected in the lives of Whites during that time period. I wanted to be “a fly on the wall,” and listen to their most private thoughts.  Thoughts they only say amongst themselves. I wanted to know what their dreams were and how they were very similar to those of Blacks, yet very different.  I wanted the story to tell the truth. I wanted it to be gritty, honest and as poetic as A Raisin in the Sun. Again, I wanted it to tell the pure, unadulterated, underlining truth.

Yet, at the end of Act I, I didn’t care about any of the characters. I guess I should have cared about Rus and Bev’s loss of their son to suicide, but I didn’t.  The reasoning being, I didn’t know enough about them to care. The dialogue was written to be basically clever, so much so, that it lacked all the edibles needed to feed the imagination. Not only were the characters interchangeable, they were monotonous. None of them had anything to say or contribute to moving the story forward or to getting at what was the actual theme of the story. I felt like I was reading a play that was standing still while trying to move forward on an engine using water for gas.

Act II warranted such huge potential. It takes place 50 years later in 2009 when a White family purchases the Younger family house and wants to move into the neighborhood and tear it down in order to build a much larger unpermitted structure.  There is so much that Norris could have written about in this act, yet is misses its mark as well.  In my opinion, the reason is because the writer hasn’t committed to understanding the multifaceted issues of the times or both parties involved.  It’s not enough to simply be an excellent writer with a nack for brainy dialogue.  You have to have something to write about and you have to totally commit to comprehending the complexities of each side.  Only then can you write a story so compelling that you breathe life into the statement of each the characters.

Instead of tackling some existent contemporary social issues, Norris chose to write superficial dialogue about a White family planning on moving back into the Clybourne Park neighborhood.  What he doesn’t express is the underlining quandary as to why. What was their reason or game plan?  Was the draw low-cost housing and easier access to downtown businesses and other conveniences?   Was it their intent to take the neighborhood back?  What was the reason that they only discuss when they’re amongst themselves?  Again, I wanted to be a “fly on the wall.”  On the other hand, what he chose to concentrate on was the family vaguely negotiating with the neighborhood council regarding tearing down the Younger house and rebuilding a larger unpermitted structure.  Who cares? That’s not interesting because there are blatant issues regarding race and economics that are totally being ignored.

Interesting is the fact that they want to move back into an area which had experienced “White Flight.”  An area where Black folks have seemingly now control, yet the White folks don’t think the house, as is, is good enough for them.  They seem to feel that if they are to live amongst Blacks, they need to tear down the original structure and rebuild a much larger one so that it is more a resemblance of their lifestyle.

Missing is the entire issue of gentrification in which higher income people move back into urban neighborhoods, tear down old houses, build conglomerate structures and drive up property values; displacing poorer residents, many of them the elderly, who can’t afford the higher rents or an increase in their property taxes.  Unfortunately, all you get in Act II is more unnecessary banter and that problem is not addressed or resolved.

In this act, the characters again, are undeveloped, especially the two Black characters who, minus a few specific racial statements, can be interchangeable with the White ones.  They have nothing of significance to say other than they are protesting the height requirement of the proposed plans by the White family. There’s a reference to the same ole cliché about White people having Black friends and some dim-witted racial jokes that seem to be unnecessary and contrived.  It’s almost an act about words and sentences more than sustenance. The Black characters in particular have nothing of value to say specifically because the author doesn’t know how to write the sentiments of Black people. 

Norris attempted to make his Black characters appear articulate and White Collard by stating where they worked and that they had been to Europe, but he totally missed the essence of who they were, as well their spirit and undertones. It’s almost as if he wrote them as an after thought without any identity or clear concept. (It’s not enough to write words on a page and hope that the actor is supposed to make some sort of semblance to the meaning. Write what we say and feel and if you don’t know, then ask someone.)  Neither one of the characters had a definitive point of view or a clear and concise notion as to what they were fighting for; which was so disappointing.

There’s a sheer sense of arrogance that Black folks perceive regarding White folks moving into an area and automatically trying to take control. Some through lines could have been, “You moved out of the neighborhood when we moved in for fear of declining property values.  We’ve managed to keep it up and now because of the convenience of its location, you want to move back in.  Yet, it’s no longer good enough unless you can build a massive structure, live above us so you can look down on us as if we’re some sharecroppers.” That gives the play perspective, meat and a tangible place to go.

Lorraine Hansberry’s play was about the American dream and what that dream instinctively meant to a race of people who because of racism were disenfranchised.  It examines America’s complicated history of racial tensions between Blacks and Whites.  There’s a sense of darkness and despair as each character seems to be captivated and almost suffocated by their own circumstances.  In spite of that, there’s hope and so much passion engulfed in those characters that you get a sense of who they are, what they want out of life and what they’re fighting for.  In essence, you feel their pain and root for their success.

I feel like Clybourne Park was another knock off on our history that did not land.  I can only guess that the people who have raved about the writing of this play have not seen, read or fully comprehended the significance and meaning of A Raisin in the Sun.  There is no way to judge this play on its own merits without examining the sensibilities of its predecessor. It should never have been touted as a prequel and sequel to A Raisin in the Sun and if the author decided that was his intention, he should have done more research and stuck with the tone and integrity of Hansberry’s work. Otherwise just make it a play about a White family that sells its house to a Black family in the 1950’s and what happens 50 years later. Only then could it be judged on its own merit and not compared to such an iconic piece of literature and history.  By tying in Clybourne Park with A Raisin in the Sun, it simply falls way, way, way, too short.

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