Pit & Balcony Explores the Satirical Dynamic Between Race Relations & Real Estate in CLYBOURNE PARK

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Theatre,   From Issue 803   By: Robert E Martin

15th January, 2015     0

There is little doubt that Pit & Balcony community theatre is rapidly evolving into an artistic organization focused upon producing groundbreaking contemporary theatrical works with a pivotal eye focused upon engaging the community that supports it.  Having produced the controversial and buoyantly successful musical Spring Awakening last Spring, followed up by the first statewide production of Hands on a Hardbody last Fall, Pit & Balcony is gearing up for one of its most significant productions to date with presentations of Clybourne Park slated to run from February 6-8 & 13-15th.

An intensely satirical, humorous, and disconcerting examination of the fault lines that permeate race and real estate, Clybourne Park was written in 2010 by playwright Bruce Norris in response to Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark work A Raisin in the Sun, and is loosely based on historical events that took place in the city of Chicago. 

Guiding and shaping the controversial and contemporary contours of Clybourne Park is Director Tommy Wedge, who also brought the cutting edge musical Spring Awakening and most recently, Hands on a Hardbody to the Pit & Balcony stage. When asked about the key qualities that distinguish Clybourne Park within the lexicon of contemporary theatre, Wedge leads in with the numerous awards this work has achieved.

“What drew me to it is the fact that it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011, along with the Olivier Award for Excellence in Theatre and then the Tony Award in 2012,” notes Wedge. “Basically, this is the Triple Crown when it comes to theatre. Glengarry Glen Ross also achieved this feat, but the Tony that it secured was for a revival, whereas this is a brand new and very fresh work. I like how it spins off from Raisin in the Sun and how it’s almost two plays pushed together that nod and wink at one another.”

“Act 1 is set in 1959 and picks up simultaneously with the last act of Raisin, back when Clybourne Park is a white neighborhood and a black family is moving into the Youngers home.  Act 2 is set 50 years later in 2009, only now it’s a black neighborhood with a white family coming in to demolish and build a new garish dwelling,” relates Wedge. 

While race relations percolate throughout the surface of the work, thematically author Bruce Norris explained in an interview that while Raisin was written from a female black woman’s perspective, Clybourne Park is a white male’s version of the dynamic.

“This play is really about race and real estate,” states Wedge. ”A quote keeps coming up in both acts: ‘We can’t live in a principle.’ To me that is important because we all have ideas on paper about how we treat our neighbors and how we want them to be, but then there’s the reality – the changes involved.”

Clybourne explores these elements of race & relations by breaking down and challenging our conceptions of neighborhoods and community. “There’s a seven person cast with two black and five white actors,” continues Wedge. “Francine works for the white household in Act 1 and in Act 2 she and her husband are the ones in the community association trying to dissuade the white family from coming in and destroying their house by creating this garish monstrosity. It’s exciting to see and hear this transition unravel in front of you.”

While Raisin in the Sun might be a hard act to follow, Wedge feels the two plays do compliment each other nicely, while standing as distinct works on their own merits. “Raisin has absolutely earned its place as one of the best plays of the last century, but Clybourne definitely stands on its own,” notes Wedge. “It’s a play that if you have knowledge of Raisin in the Sun will help enrich this show, but its not something you have to keep in your back pocket to enjoy. The younger family in Raisin is never seen in this play and the only character reused is the least prominent one, Karl Lindner – the schmuck from the Association in Raisin. So the character you like least is the only one featured in Clybourne, which is delightful in its own right.” 

The seven-member cast consists of Jim Stewart, Ann Russell-Lutenske, Ekia Thomas, Marco Verdoni, Kenneth Elmore, Chad William Baker, Cassidy Morey and Kale Schafer, who each play different characters in Act 1 and Act 2 respectively. Stewart has done work with both Midland and Bay City Players, while Cassidy and Chad have performed in many productions at SVSU prior to graduation. Marco and Ann Russell have each performed in numerous plays at P&B, while Ekia most recently acted in the P&B production of Hands on a Hardbody. Meanwhile, Ken Elmore is acting in his first production for P&B.

Wedge says that he could have cast the work with 15 actors, but that the author Bruce Norris used the same actors in the original production, so Wedge decided to follow his lead because this way the audience can see how the same people have changed over the years, but in many ways haven’t changed. 

Wedge views the biggest challenge involved with staging this production as an issue of determining the best way to approach the script. “In Act 2 the ice finally gets broken about the issue of race through the use of jokes, some of which are very explosive,” he explains. 

“For the serious nature of its subject matter, it’s important to understand that Clybourne Park filters and translates this weighty material through the device of comedy and through many off-color jokes. As a director I’ve been around this material for months; and when you hear the jokes, you initially ask yourself whether you should laugh or not; but a lot of the challenge, given its comedic nature, involves how we as a society approach these issues.  I like that a community theatre is doing this play because it’s a play about our community. There are neighborhoods in Saginaw that could be Clyblourne Park completely, so it’s a good way to start a conversation.”

In translating this work for the stage, Wedge says at the first production meeting he knew that he wanted to get out of the way of the play because it’s written so well. “The language is so precise and dense. It won a Tony Award in 2012 for Best New Play, so the rights are pretty new. We were able to obtain the right to produce it as soon as they came up, so I love that it’s a play that even if people may not have heard about it, it’s still familiar because of the history involved.”

“Because of the cadence of the comedy and its use of phrasing, what is wonderful about this play is that it can deal with such heavy themes that you can’t even hear on cable news.  It delves into the stuff people don’t talk about and when you leave the theatre you go ‘Wow – how do I feel about this? Is there a good guy? Who do I relate to? It let’s you draw your own answers, which I believe is a superior approach. It’s nice when we watch something that validates our opinion; but even better when you leave the theatre questioning it.”

For Pit & Balcony President Martha Humphreys, when Clybourne Park became available for production, the Board decided to jump on it because having produced Raisin in the Sun last season, it was a natural selection. 

“What we didn’t know is that we would be doing this play in a world that has gone backwards in terms of race relations recently,” she comments. “It’s an interesting play to stage right now because while it has humor it deals with all the frustration behind race issues that have resurfaced. Here we are 50 years after Raisin and there is almost a sense of prescience that Norris wrote this play and now the world has dovetailed into it.”

“This is another one of those plays like Spring Awakening where Pit & Balcony is striving to be on the cutting edge. It’s a bold show and a bold stance we are taking because we are redefining ourselves into not being afraid to take the step onto the precipice and see what happens. I believe that we are succeeding because these types of show generate a lot of talk and interest and work as theatre should.”

“This isn’t a movie or a TV show,” she continues. “It’s live people on the stage absorbed in their characters and watching the actors bring these characters to life is as close to real life as you can get.  Forget Reality TV – this is the real deal. It’s not just about entertainment, but more importantly, it’s about engaging the audience.”

“Pit & Balcony is evolving and defining itself through the plays chosen and acknowledging the changes within the dynamics of new playwrights in the new millennium. It's no longer sufficient to just produce the old standards.   Clybourne Park is a contemporary play yet will resonate with older audiences.”  

“With Clybourne Park I think that Bruce Norris looked around Chicago and being an astute man he looked at what happened with real estate and neighborhood gentrification and captured the realities of it,” reflects Humphreys. “And if you or I got into our cars and drove around Saginaw we would see the same thing in terms of how communities change. Some of it is harsh because change is harsh. It’s not easy for a younger family to move into an established and older neighborhood, just as it’s not so easy for someone to sell their home to a younger family and move onward.”

“We can't ignore the changing face of morality or racism or other identifiable uncomfortable notions going on in the world, “ continues Humphreys.  “Camelot is gone.  There's a stark new reality in the world and on the stage.  Yes, producing newer shows can upset the equilibrium of some theatre goers, but settling for age-old albeit comfortable plays is to disavow the realism of our present day world.”  

“P&B is making a sustained and serious effort to bring to our stage the best plays for our socio-economic demographics.  Our Play Selection Committee strives to choose a season that will appeal to the diversity of our community within the Great Lakes Bay Region, especially Saginaw,” she concludes.

“The humor is more acerbic, poignant, and in your face.  Audiences should prepare themselves for a rare treat and the epitome of what a powerful theatrical experience can deliver.”

Pit & Balcony's production of 'Clybourne Park' will run from Feb. 6-8, 13-15th. For tickets you can call 989-754-6587. This production is sponsored by Art Sample Furniture. Pit & Balcony is located at 805 N. Hamilton Street at Throop - Where Broadway Meets Saginaw.


Please login to comment



Current Issue


Don't have an account?