Centerstage’s Clybourne Park: Racial humor,caricatures make one uproarious play

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Jacob H Knoll; Beth Hylton; Jessica Frances Dukes; and Charlie Hudson, III in Centerstage’s production of Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris.  (Richard Anderson)

Hey, did you hear the one about the bigot and the black guy? How about the minister, the maid and the pregnant deaf woman?

It is hard to believe in today’s politically correct climate that any play which caricatures people along physical, social and sexual lines could enjoy a celebrated reception. Yet that is precisely the case with Centerstage’s production of the sometimes tasteless, though often uproarious play, Clybourne Park.

Clybourne Park is the first of two landmark plays slated to run in rotating repertory as The Raisin Cycle. Written by Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright Bruce Norris, Clybourne Park picks up where Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun left off. Directed by Derrick Sanders, this Centerstage production takes a satiric look at prejudice, social mores and gentrification.

The play is set in two eras, 50 years apart. All of the action takes place in the cozy confines of a cottage in Chicago’s Clybourne Park. The play opens with Bev and Russ, two disaffected suburbanites, packing in preparation of an impending move. As friends and neighbors descend, issues of unresolved anger and alienation quickly cloud the idyllic setting.

In the second act, the story moves to 2009. The same cast appears again, in entirely different roles. Though 50 years have passed, almost nothing has really changed in Clybourne Park. The cultural strains of 1959 in many ways still plague the community.

Finding humor in real estate red-lining and racial segregation is something of a stretch, but Norris’ script provides plenty of satire in the hope of stimulating thoughtful consideration.

Beth Hylton, Jacob H Knoll, James Ludwig, Jenna Sokolowski in CENTERSTAGEÕs production of Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, directed by Derrick Sanders. Photo © Richard Anderson.The dialogue in Clybourne Park is fast and fairly funny, though much of the comical conflict is as old as an episode of All in The Family. Where Clybourne Park really shines is in its biting take on the societal turn-about created by the influx of whites into urban enclaves. Whose neighborhood is it anyway? The middle-class blacks whose parents broke down the artificial walls of segregation? The returning white yuppies with cash to burn who want to ‘revive’ the area? Throw in a flustered gay man and a strident female lawyer, and the sparks to set off a powder-keg seem inevitable.

A few missteps are in this play. For instance, it is not clear in Act I why Francine the maid and her husband Albert abruptly return to help move a cumbersome trunk. And the closing dream-sequence between Bev and her dead son Kenneth, while beautifully played, seems – in light of the satire which precedes the moment – like a contrived after-thought. But overall, Director Derrick Sanders keeps the action humming, and the players deliver their often jarring dialogue with embarrassing delight.

Casting Director Tara Rubin has assembled a capable corps of actors, most of whom are making their Centerstage debuts. The entire cast is to be commended, though particularly pleasing are Jonathan Crombie, James Ludwig and Charlie Hudson, III.

Crombie appears in the first act as the agitated Russ. Ludwig counters as his boorish neighbor Karl. The tension the two create only serves to make the tasteless humor all that much more laughable. At one point Karl even asks Russ, “Have you ever seen a black guy ski?” By Act II, the tables have turned and we find Ludwig’s know-it-all urbanite Steve sparring with Hudson’s middle-American Kevin. Hudson brings down the house, when he asks his white neighbor if he has ever gone skiing.

In the triple roles of Jim/Tom/Kenneth, Jacob H. Knoll delivers a perfect, understated performance. Nothing is funnier than seeing a priest wave off repeated uses of the “F” word with a smiling, “Don’t worry. I’ve heard it all before.” Knoll, along with Jessica Frances Dukes as Francine/Lena, serves to steady a cast of characters who could easily start bouncing off the walls.

As the neighbor’s wife in both acts, Jenna Sokolowski is cute and charming as the idealistic Lindsey, though her take on the hearing-impaired Betsy could easily appal. And Beth Hylton segues seamlessly from ’50s housewife Bev to contemporary corporate lawyer Kathy.

The convincing set by Jack Magaw, which morphs from a beautiful bungalow to a dilapidated shell, draws the audience into the action. The Eisenhower-era costumes of Reggie Ray and hair designs of Greg Bazemore help to separate each of the player’s early characters from their modern incarnations.

Clybourne Park is a provocative story played out in satirical form. Those who enjoy sarcastic social commentary – spiced with stereotypical humor and off-color jokes – will throughly enjoy this production. Others are sure to find plenty to offend.

Centerstage’s production of Clybourne Park runs now through June 16. Running time for Clybourne Park is about two hours with one intermission. Seating for those arriving late is at the discretion of the house manger. Please note that beginning in May, Clybourne Park will run alternately with a production of Beneatha’s Place. Tickets and other information for both shows may be found here.