Clybourne Park, Wyndham’s Theatre, London’s West End, February 2011

The title of this play refers to an area of Chicago (about 1400 north) around the junction of Clybourn and Larrabee. It’s a little southeast of the Steppenwolf Theatre, home to the playwright Bruce Norris, and just north of the infamous Cabrini Green housing estate. The general area is often referred to as Old Town where, in the late 1950s and 1960s, there was an exodus of white residents as black families started to move in. Many years later a process of gentrification started on the north side of Chicago, and by the early 1990s it was beginning to take hold in Old Town as block by block young professionals started buying up the lovely frame houses and remodelling them.

Bev (Sophie Thompson) tries to give her maid (Lorna Brown) some unwanted junk, photo by Donald Cooper

The new buyers had to keep within the city’s planning laws, and the second part of this play starts with a meeting between realtor, lawyer, buyers and local (black) residents. The buyers are so-o-o keen. The young pregnant wife is so liberal (“half my friends are black”) and so frightfully wary of offending the black people, but she just doesn’t quite get it. In fact hardly anyone gets it — they’re all so desperately keen to talk that no one listens, so they simply talk over one another when it suits them.

The audience in the theatre loved it when the participants got heated and started telling racial jokes, two of which were quite nasty. The trouble started when the black lady politely tried to say something several times, and eventually got it off her chest, saying she was concerned about the neighbourhood changing its character. But the innuendo was clear and when she got a reaction, her husband bristled with a counter-reaction, and things deteriorated. Ironically, the black lady’s parents had worked for the couple who sold the first house to a black family in 1959 — and it was this particular house.

That happened in Act I where we learn that they defied the local residents’ committee. They did this because their son had committed suicide after getting nasty jibes from his neighbours, following his return from the Korean War. Then in Act II the young husband tries to make peace with the black residents by saying he hates his current neighbours in the suburbs, with their yellow ribbons on their cars. A yellow ribbon shows you’re the proud parent of a someone serving with US forces in Afghanistan or Iraq, and the young husband thinks he’s being liberal and therefore in some confused way anti-racist. The black husband however has three sons serving overseas, so the white man is coming full circle to the issue that led to the original sale to a black family.

The trouble with these people is that they think they know more than they do, which the playwright Bruce Norris makes perfectly clear in both acts with definite statements about capital cities and the origin of the word Neapolitan. In Act I the wife says it means new city, which is correct, and her husband says it means from Naples, which is also correct. They argue. In Act II both parties are in agreement about the beauty of Spain, but then that drifts to Morocco, and the husband asserts its capital is Rabat (correct) while others think it’s Marrakech or Tangier. He’s right, but the point is that while everyone is reasonably well endowed in the IQ department, their emotional intelligence is lamentable.

Both acts end with people angrily leaving through the door, but at the very end a letter surfaces, as do ghosts of the past.

Direction by Dominic Cooke kept the action moving at a great pace, and with excellent designs by Robert Innes Hopkins, very well lit by Paule Constable, this was a fine production. Acting was more variable. Lorna Brown and Lucien Msamati were very good as the black couple, Sarah Goldberg was brilliant as the young wife in Act II, and her husband was very well played by Stephen Campbell Moore. Having lived in Chicago for thirty years, I found some of the accents didn’t quite ring true, and one or two portrayals seemed a bit over the top. When things got over-heated and the angry racial jokes started, most of the audience seemed relieved to burst into loud laughter, but that was their issue not the actors’. It’s a clever play, using the housing market to expose the repressed anger of many black Americans and the self-satisfied ‘liberalism’ of many white professionals.

After transferring from a sell-out at the Royal Court, performances at Wyndham’s Theatre continue until May 7 — for more details click here.

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