First published in The Times, Monday September 23 2019
The playwright Lorraine Hansberry died in 1965 at the age of 34 but her small body of work has resonated down the decades. She inspired her friend Nina Simone to write the hit song To Be Young, Gifted and Black. Her play A Raisin in the Sun (1959), about the struggles of a black family to improve their social and financial fortunes, is endlessly revived.
That play has built its own mythology, with the setting and characters recurring in works by contemporary playwrights. Bruce Norris’s 2010 play Clybourne Park functions as both a prequel and sequel to the events of A Raisin in the Sun. Its title refers to the largely white Chicago neighbourhood to which the Younger family relocates in Hansberry’s play.
Pic: Eoin Carey
In the opening act we return to 1959 and meet Bev and Russ (played in Rapture Theatre’s production by Jackie Morrison and Robin Kingsland), the middle class white couple seeking a fresh start following a tragedy. The missives have already been signed but the rest of the neighbourhood aren’t happy at the prospect of a black family living among them. One neighbour, Karl (Jack Lord), has recently visited the Youngers to make a counter offer.
This scene, which plays out in the half-emptied front room of the Clybourne Street residence, gradually heats up under Michael Emans’s direction into a tense, beautifully pitched exploration of exclusion and fear of the other. The increasingly bitter argument takes place in full view of the household’s black maid Francine (Adelaide Obeng) and her husband, Albert (Vinta Morgan), both of them seemingly invisible to the noisy throng of white characters.
Pic: Eoin Carey
The second act is a flash forward to 2009. It lacks the emotional depth of the first and feels less assured in Emans’s production. Clybourne Park is now a mostly black, up-and-coming neighbourhood where an incoming white couple has attracted suspicion with their plans to renovate. A meeting involving residents and lawyers ignites into a war of words in which deep prejudices are shown to be simmering below the surface of polite liberalism.
The scene, while excruciating, is also blackly comic. The ensemble, doubling in roles that reflect and contradict their characters from Act One, do justice to Norris’s sharp, nuanced look at race, social change and communication breakdown.