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On Stage: 'Clybourne Park' rips into racism with side-splitting results

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 29, 2012 - You may have heard in bits and pieces that Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park” is about race and real estate with roots in “A Raisin in the Sun.” But have you heard the one about it being startlingly funny?

I’m not talking about the jokes; they come later and have their purpose. I mean the didn’t-see-it-coming laughter that erupts from awkwardness and epiphany and unexpected honesty.

Race is a topic often delivered with a dose of preachiness. Not here. The Rep’s presentation of the Tony Award-winning satire, directed by Timothy Near, rises to meet superlatives reserved for truly mind-bending theater: Whip-smart script presented with flawless timing and brimming with aha/haha moments before crescendoing in a stunning finish.

The Gist:

“Clybourne Park” opens in the 1959 living room of a white Chicago couple’s home where neighbors (also white) are upset because the house has been sold to a black family. In conversations that morph from strained politeness to an angry free-for-all, home-sellers Russ and Bev (Mark Anderson Phillips and Nancy Bell), neighbors Karl and Betsy (Michael James Reed and Shanara Gabrielle), long-time maid Francine (Tanesha Gary) and her husband Albert (Chauncy Thomas), and pastor Jim (Eric Gilde) spill secrets and swear words.

Along the way, Bev gushes over the great "friendship" she and Francine share, only to later reveal that she doesn't even know how many children Francine has.

In Act Two, the calendar has moved ahead 50 years and the house has deteriorated into squatter status. In 2009, it’s the white buyers (Reed as clueless Steve, Gabrielle as self-righteous Lindsey) who want in, to tear the house down and start over.

What are we really talking about?

"It’s race, isn’t it?” Steve asks.

A Morsel:

White neighbor Karl corners black household help Francine into the 1959 discussion of blacks moving into his white neighborhood, trying to bully her into saying segregation is good for black families. Squirming, Francine carefully walks the line. But her husband Albert's exaggerated reply lays bare Karl’s real intentions.

Karl: But, for example, if Mrs. Stoller here were to send you to shop at Gelman’s. Do you find, when you’re standing in the aisles at Gelman’s, does it generally strike you as the kind of market where you could find the particular foods your family enjoys?

Francine: It’s a very nice store ... Mr. Gelman’s a nice man.

Karl: But, I mean, your preferred food items, would such things even be available at Gelman’s?

Albert: Do they carry collards and pig feet? ‘Cuz I sho couldn’t shop nowhere didn’ sell no pig feet.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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