CLEVELAND: If you want the unprintable punch line to the joke that begins, “Why is a white woman like a tampon,” you’ll have to go see Clybourne Park, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Bruce Norris at the Cleveland Play House about race relations in 1959 and now.
This comedic drama takes its inspiration from the 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, the first play by an African-American to be produced on Broadway.
That play and the film version, both of which starred Sidney Poitier, deal with the challenges facing an African-American family who aspire to move to a fictional white neighborhood in Chicago called Clybourne Park. A revival of the play opened last week on Broadway, starring Denzel Washington.
The writer of Clybourne Park, who won Tony and Olivier awards for it, is a white man with a wicked sense of humor and a penchant for disturbing his audience.
He explains that he saw A Raisin in the Sun in high school and thought to himself, “Oh my God, I’m Karl Lindner,” the white neighbor who leads the charge against the black family. “I’m the bad guy.”
“It was pretty amazing that the original play even got produced back then. It was so shocking for that time,” said Mark Cuddy, artistic director of the Cleveland Play House production.
“But it really didn’t dip into the enormous pain and stress of being the first African-American family to move into an all-white neighborhood. When we think of the ending of that movie, we kind of gloss over all the tensions that were still there.”
The first half of Norris’ play deals with the same moment in time, but from the perspective of the family that’s selling the house to the African-American family. The prejudiced neighbor, Karl Lindner, once again tries to block the sale.
The white families of the neighborhood get to speak extensively in this telling of the story, revealing their prejudices and fears without modern self-consciousness or embarrassment. Hilariously, they even try to enlist the homeowner’s black housekeeper and her husband to support their views.
The second half of the play is set 50 years later, in 2009. The neighborhood has been largely African-American for some time and a white family is trying to move into the same house. Now the neighbors are concerned that the white family may be the vanguard of a gentrification process that will destroy their neighborhood.
The African-American characters are now far more comfortable speaking their minds. Meanwhile, the white characters have learned to tiptoe awkwardly around racial issues, but much of the underlying tensions seem to remain.
“Sometimes plays about issues can be dogmatic. But this play is not,” said Cuddy. “The characters are so well drawn and the dialogue is at times so outrageous, that it really forces us to personally consider … what role do they have in contemporary race relations?”
Cuddy points out that another dark force in American culture is driving the action, along with race. “In America, everything comes down to money — in this case possessions or real estate. That’s what rules, and that’s the way any kind of development over time happens with cities and neighborhoods.”
The issue of gentrification is very timely, Cuddy said. “It’s all over the news, in cities across the country, here and everywhere else.”
After performances, an audience-participation session discusses the themes of the play. At Saturday’s show, audience members pointed out that the fictional story echoes what is playing out in Cleveland neighborhoods like Ohio City and Tremont.
One audience member who lives in Shaker Heights said she related to the characters’ difficulty in dealing with change in once-familiar neighborhoods.
Cuddy said the play is so powerful because it accepts the complexity of the subject matter.
“It’s like when the Whole Foods store was trying to move into an old neighborhood in Seattle that was experiencing white gentrification. A grass-roots protest movement shut it down. It seemed like a big success at the time. But then there were people who said, ‘I’ve lived here for 20 years, but I’d kind of like a Whole Foods in the neighborhood.’ There isn’t necessarily a good guy or bad guy.”
The playwright himself sees the play as treating a much broader topic than race.
“Everyone latches on to the idea that this play is about race,” said Norris. “And I don’t think that race is its central topic. I feel that territoriality is. It’s a human impulse that in the large scale, creates war, and in the small scale … creates homeowners associations. We fight over territory for incredibly personal … inexplicable, ungraspable reasons.”
Clybourne Park runs through Sunday at the Cleveland Play House, Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. Tickets are $45-$72; go to http://clevelandplayhouse.com or call 216-400-7027.