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Citadel play slashes at racism

Clybourne Park edgy, provocative and funny

By: Anna Borowiecki

  |  Posted: Saturday, Feb 01, 2014 06:00 am

CLYBOURNE PARK – Characters Steve (Martin Happer), Lena (Sereana Malani) and Kevin (Michael Blake) tell a round of racist jokes in the thought-provoking Clybourne Park.
CLYBOURNE PARK – Characters Steve (Martin Happer), Lena (Sereana Malani) and Kevin (Michael Blake) tell a round of racist jokes in the thought-provoking Clybourne Park.

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Clybourne Park
Runs until Feb. 16
Citadel Theatre
9828 – 101 Ave.

“It’s all right. Nothing’s broken,” says a character after a first-act tussle in Citadel Theatre’s latest production Clybourne Park.

But of course something is broken. It’s always been broken, but none of the characters acknowledge it.

Playwright Bruce Norris’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning play is both a hysterical satire and a controversial social commentary on racism – one that reveals rabid bigotry raging just underneath the skin, waiting for an opportunity to explode.

And director James MacDonald’S whip-smart production rightly captures the mood swings and rhythms as well as the play’s sweeping universal truths.

Set in two acts 50 years apart, the play first takes us to 1959 and Clybourne Park, a white-only community.

The house is the same one the Younger family was planning to move into at the end of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark drama on the enforced segregation of races of blacks and whites. In Hansberry’s drama, a black family is trying to move out of its cramped quarters into a roomy house in an all-white neighbourhood.

Norris takes up where Hansberry left off and introduces us to the other side of the transaction. We meet the sellers Bev and Russ as they pack up their belongings from a Leave It to Beaver-style home they’ve just sold at a bargain price.

But something isn’t quite right. Russ sorrowfully sits in his pajamas eating ice cream while Bev rushes around packing boxes and jabbering non-stop. To the couple, the house represents grief and desolation, and they simply want to start a new life.

Their neighbour Karl arrives raging that a “coloured family” has bought the house and property values will sink. He desperately tries to persuade Russ and Bev to change their mind, whereby a discussion morphs into a volatile fight.

The same actors playing different characters return in the second act to the house 50 years later, with Clybourne Park now being an all-black neighbourhood.

Kathy is a lawyer who represents Steve and Lindsay, a young white couple who have bought the now blighted house marred with graffiti and broken plaster. The once elegant, wooden staircase looks as if it’s been hacked into a skeletal remnant of its past.

Steve and Lindsay want to tear down the property and build a McMansion complete with a koi pond. Lena, a leader of the housing association, opposes the couple’s plans, using “historic” integrity as her argument.

What starts off as a civilized discussion on city ordinances and codes swiftly evolves into an us-versus-them scenario in which people behave like territorial barbarians.

Norris suggests no one really listens to each other. Everybody is in a permanent state of irritation, with friction and tension the foundation of discussion. No one appears to speak the same language and even if they try, it’s often misunderstood.

Doug Mertz (Russ) and Kerry Sandomirsky (Bev) are superb as parents wrapped up in their own misery. Martin Happer speaks volumes about society in the Karl/Steve roles. And Sereana Malani as both the maid Francine and Lena morphs from a subservient character to a dynamic presence who refuses to be pushed around.

Yes, their lives are broken. But it’s in large part because they tap-dance around racism, refusing to discuss its barely-suppressed existence. Unfortunately, the issues never get resolved.

Although Clybourne Park revolves around seriousness, Norris’ edgy, provocative jokes spare no one – blacks, whites, gays, breast cancer victims, the military and Jews. By the end we are left to ask, “Why are we laughing?”


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