Clybourne Park a relevant racial discussion

 Whites and colours are not washed separately in this companion play to 1959’s A Raisin in the Sun.

By Esther Tung
Photos by David Cooper

“How is a white woman like a tampon?” is one of the many pressing questions on racial privilege raised in Clybourne Park. A no-holds-barred script mocks white guilt and the common tendency to identify racism as individual acts of meanness, rather than institutionalized behaviour. With racism as a stand-in for other forms of oppression, Clybourne Park finds itself a relevant guest in Vancouver.

1959’s A Raisin in the Sun was the first Broadway production written by an African-American woman, based on Lorraine Hansberry’s own experience growing up in the midst of a controversial lawsuit that threatened to rescind the purchase of her black family’s home in a hostile all-white neighbourhood. Clybourne Park borrows the premise of Raisin, as well as a minor character, and explores racism through real estate from the perspective of the white family moving out.

On an unusually chaotic morning for mourning parents Bev and Russ, they are visited by their clergyman, and accosted by a nosy, overbearing neighbour Karl and his deaf wife, Betsy. A slow build-up to the first act tips over the wall as Karl rambles his concerns over the black family moving in to replace Bev and Russ. Karl’s rant is a liberal’s nightmare ––“Find me some skiing Negroes!” — but as he’s in the midst of it, you look over to the far side of the stage, and suddenly remember that Francine and Albert, Bev’s black helper and her husband, have never left the room, and the message of the play clicks together.

Given the financial position, would Francine and Albert like to move into this white neighbourhood? Karl urges them for an answer, but it is not given on equal footing.

After a 20-minute intermission, the intricate stage set up of the first act has been torn down completely. Act two jumps forward 50 years, when America has voted in its first black president, and Chicago’s ghettoized Clybourne Park is on the precipice of gentrification.

A discussion on renovating the house to comply with bylaws highlights the resentments in each party, and suddenly degenerates into a scathing, horrifyingly funny one-two punch-and-punch-back of racist jokes.

But in the midst of the scathing commentary and witticisms, the play does not forget itself. Lingering behind the curtain all along, upstairs, and in that mysterious trunk, is the ghost of Kenneth, the son who killed himself. The coda returns to 1959 for a poignant, sentimental scene. “I do believe that things are going to change for the better,” Bev says to her son, somewhat naively, prompting a comparison of the two acts.

Have things changed for the better between then and now? How accurate a reflection are the characters on us, on the way we talk about race, class and gender?

In class, we throw out straw man arguments and regurgitate theories from our professors when discussing the exploitative working conditions of factories in developing countries, the victims of the sex trade, and other weights of the world, yet it seems the furthest thing from reality when you put privileged middlemen – the authors of our readings and our professors – in between us and the issue.

Clybourne Park is a useful complement to a university education, a stark reminder of the way that oppressed groups and those with less privilege are discussed in political and intellectual conversations, and most of all in academia.