Review: Clybourne Park

Micha Frazer-Carroll 10 May 2016

First taking to the stage in 2009, the themes of race relations, ‘political correctness’ and gentrification in Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park seem as relevant as ever in 2016. Cambridge Arts’ Theatre’s current production stylishly serves its audience food for thought, however it seems as if more creativity, thought and character development could have gone into the piece. 

Opening in a 1950’s middle-class Chicago neighbourhood called Clybourne Park, the play propels us into the lives of a couple, Bev and Russ, who are grieving the recent death of their son, and are moving out of their (majority-white) neighbourhood as a result. Receiving a visit from their local clergyman and their married neighbours, the first act is concerned with the revelation that the house’s potential buyers are a black family- an idea that Bev and Russ’ neighbours are not too happy with. They go to great lengths to persuade the couple to reject; in the process they plunge the couple’s black housemaid and her husband into the awkwardness of their cringe-inducing racial commentary, whilst of course very much skirting around words like ‘race’, ‘ethnicity’ or, God forbid, ‘black’.

Skip forward to 2009 and we see the same cast, the same house, and an impressively overhauled set and costumes, depicting a pregnant, middle class white couple planning to build a house in Clybourne Park, which has since become a majority black, working class neighbourhood, seemingly on its way towards gentrification. Joined by a team of people facilitating the project, as well as black neighbourhood residents who are opposed to it, the group aims to sit down and discuss project plans. This escalates into a similarly heated race-based argument, where racist jokes, privilege and tension flies about the stage.

Whilst the script itself is unquestionably strong, the pacing seemed to be off at times, with a much greater proportion of scattered chuckles than huge laughs in the first half of the show (although perhaps the more reserved nature of non-student theatre audiences contributed to this). Moreover, the staging felt somewhat unimaginative and diminished the amount of energy brought forward by the performance, with most of the floorspace going unused and the modern-day portion simply featuring the actors sat around in a semicircle.

These issues of timing and staging may have also contributed to the lack of believability of the relationships between the characters, whether these were romantic or hate-fuelled. Moreover, cast members’ questionably-executed American accents, which became slightly irritating towards the show’s climax, served to somewhat distract the viewer from the main event.

Nonetheless, comic timing improved as the play went on. The cast’s chemistry was tangible- squaring up to each other and interacting with one another as tensions rose, and making the most of the more risqué and controversial lines allowed by a modern-day setting. Gloria Onitiri, playing Lena, a petitioner who is adverse to the new house being built, particularly stood out in terms of the energy and comedy brought forward by her performance.

There is no doubt that the issues that Norris aims to tackle are still prevalent and pervasive in 2016, and Clybourne Park presents viewers with a fresh and personal look into the causes and repercussions of demographic changes within communities. The piece is self-aware and satirises the unchanging nature of racial prejudice. Whilst the use of space and timing could have been more considered, the play is nonetheless both funny and engaging-its key themes ultimately do deliver.