Strictly Business

Article excerpt

A Raisin in the Sun has a special place in Broadway history. It was, among other things, the first Broadway play with a black director and one of the first plays about black life to attract a large white audience. Those who criticized Sydney Poitier for playing so many unthreatening Good Negroes sometimes cite his performance in Raisin as an example par excellence of the form; those same critics apparently forget that his first role on Broadway was in Lysistrata. One of Lorraine Hansbenys great achievements in die play is that she transformed a rather tedious real-life family drama starring her real-estate broker father--the legal proceedings of Hansberry v. Lee, a case dealing with racial covenants in housing-into a work of involving drama, and one that has borne fruit in the form of Clybourne Park, a wry take on the events leading up to the fictitious Younger family's experience in Raisin and related events that come a generation later.

Clybourne Park is a play by Bruce Norris with two acts and one joke, an elegantly simple structure that manages to be full of power and humor. The first act is set in 1959, when a white family, shattered by a terrible personal tragedy, sells its home in Clybourne Park, a middle-class Chicago neighborhood, at a discount price. Immersed in their own misery, they are unaware that the buyer is a black family--the first ever to move into the all-white enclave. The neighbors are more perceptive, and mobilize against this foothold of integration, albeit very, very politely. The second act is set in 2009, when the first white family establishes a foothold in Clybourne Park, which in the intervening sixty years has been transformed into an increasingly downscale and chaotic black ghetto. The solidly middle-class home on Clybourne Street has been ravaged, its interior covered with graffiti. In fact, it is in such poor shape that the buyers are torn between renovating it and completely knocking it down to start from scratch.

Karl Lindner, the least appealing character from Raisin in the Sun, is resurrected in Clybourne Park, played with great skill and comic timing by Jeremy Shamos. (He returns in Act II as Steve, the put-upon liberal male half of the would-be gentrification duo.) Lindner is a classical type in the drama of race relations, the reflexively conservative skeptic making a naively Burkean case for keeping things more or less as they are. He protests that he is not a bigot--and cites as evidence the presence and eventual community acceptance of a Jewish grocer in the neighborhood-and the question of his bigotry is in fact an open one. He is not motivated by malice, but by a sincere concern for the stability of the neighborhood, the cohesion of the community, and not least--a factor surely not lost on New York audiences--the vacillations of the real-estate market. (That so many plays appearing to be about one subject or another in the end rum out to be about real estate is a direct consequence of the fact that New York is the center of the American theater.) Lindner is oleaginous, conniving, and cowardly, but he is not evil, and both the playwright Bruce Norris (a self-described "privileged whitey on the left") and Mr. Shamos deserve a great deal of credit for ensuring that Lindner is something more than a cartoon.

The damnable thing about Karl Lindner is that he turns out to be right: The racial integration of Clybourne Park turns out to be a catastrophe. White flight ensues, real-estate prices collapse, and the black families who scrimped and saved to move to a decent middle-class neighborhood find themselves right back in another ghetto. Mr. Norris's view of the relationship between race and real estate has been characterized as bleak and nihilistic. It is certainly not an appealing view except that it resonates with die historical experience in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit. In dealing forthrightly with that historical experience, Mr. Norris strikes a neat balance: Nobody in the play is a hero; in fact, nobody in Clybourne Park is even a particularly sympathetic character. …