If you enjoy Greater Greater Washington, you should go see Clybourne Park, if for no other reason than it might be your only chance for a long time to see a play whose second act starts with a debate over the zoning definition of “frontage.”
Fifty years separate the two acts of Clybourne Park, playing at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre until April 17th. The first, in 1959, takes place at the same time as Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, but from the point of view of the family selling the house to the Hansberrys.
The formerly all-white, suburban neighborhood of Clybourne Park outside Chicago is about to become integrated as a black family moves in, which as in many such neighborhoods ultimately triggers “white flight” out of the area.
The second depicts the same house in 2009, as a young, white couple has just bought the house. Clybourne Park now finds itself once again on the precipice of racial change as gentrifiers move into what has been for decades a predominantly African-American neighborhood. The couple wants to tear the house down and build something taller and probably gaudier, prompting a petition to establish a historic district to preserve the Craftsman bungalow and others like it.
Playwright Bruce Norris weaves together many layers besides the main racial plot and the zoning and historic preservation. In fact, the play doesn’t even get to race until well into each act, with the characters instead trading entertaining repartee about topics like demonyms while giving the audience a deep insight into the various characters.
In fact, the characters spend more time avoiding difficult subjects than confronting them. Clybourne Park is perhaps more a play about the ways people avoid talking about race, family relationships, and other painful topics, along with the evident discomfort that then arises once circumstances force the issues to the fore. Most of the time, the audience can laugh at, and with, the characters’ discomfort; at other times, it becomes so great as to make the audience clearly uncomfortable as well.
There are no clear heroes or villains in Clybourne Park. In the second act, for example, a black female character follows up a moving statement about her family with a reference to conspiracy theories about gentrification, while one of the white male characters replies with an abstract demographic argument that exhibits a real insensitivity to the feelings of those displaced. Everybody is imperfect, sometimes right, sometimes wrong.
I went to the play expecting a thought-provoking investigation of gentrification; I found myself pondering many other subjects as well and thoroughly entertained along the way.
The Woolly Mammoth also reached out to a number of neighborhood blogs like And Now, Anacostia, Borderstan and U Street Girl to discuss the question, “Is your neighborhood Clybourne Park?” Though the play resonates with modern-day gentrification in many neighborhoods across DC, And Now, Anacostia makes the most convincing case that that neighborhood is the closest analogue:
Like Clybourne Park, Anacostia (Historic Anacostia / Uniontown) was an all-white neighborhood until the 1960s. Its businesses and housing stock saw major declines in the second part of the 20th century. And like in Clybourne Park, today there are many people and organizations here in Anacostia that are interested in seeing the neighborhood develop into something that recognizes history, respects its buildings, and fuses new with old.
The theater also is offering $15 discount tickets through those blogs; I’m sure they won’t mind if you use the same code, especially since you ought to read those blogs anyway. Use the code 789 to get tickets online, on the phone at 202-393-3939, or at the theater itself at 641 D Street, NW.
Update: Some have reported the code not working online, but still being able to use it over the phone. Or, just pay full price and support the arts if you can afford it.