- Gareth K Vile
- 25 September 2019
An American iteration of an international problem
Michael Emans, director of Rapture Theatre, has commented that his production of Bruce Norris' script was inspired by observation of the challenges and prejudice faced by 'strong negative reactions by some people who seemed to object … to black actors playing iconic roles': his programme notes explore specific questions about how race and racism have been addressed in theatre. Clybourne Park, written in 2011 and considering North American race relations during the 1950s and in the years of Obama's presidency, presents a conversation that, in subsequent years, manifested in the Black Lives Matter movement and the resurgence of race-baiting in both British and North American politics.
Sharply divided into two acts – the first set in the all-white neighbourhood that feels threatened by the potential arrival of its first African-American home-owners, the second in the same estate in the twenty-first century – Clybourne Park is not shy in displaying the genteel bigotry hidden by soft words, feigned compassion and supported by both capitalism and the church that swirls around beneath the veneers of acceptance and inclusion. The 'modest three-bedroomed bungalow' becomes the battle-field for a war of words that occasionally becomes explicit but often hides itself within flimsy moral justifications.
Emans' relaxed and measured direction suits the script's gradual unravelling of prejudice, and the ensemble cast capture both the uptight and vicious sensibilities of the 1950s and the more relaxed but equally virulent attitudes of the twenty-first century. Off-colour humour, 'reverse racism', gentrification and the importance of heritage and community all become weapons in two very polite versions of race-war, tied together by a domestic tragedy that would easily fit into one of Arthur Miller's scripts.
Norris refuses to draw any moral conclusions – the rampant racism of the first act is easily condemned, but act two offers an apparently more equal skirmish – and many of the observations and arguments have become familiar through the rise of the idiot right on YouTube. The white misunderstanding of historical oppression is given space for its tawdry objections to equality: the African-American couple transition from domestic servants in Act I to defenders of the community in Act II, marking the processes of change that has seen some social progress.
Whether Norris' detached position is a worthy attempt to allow a cerebral perspective on a major contemporary problem or an abdication of moral responsibility, Emans' decision to stage the play is, at least, a rare attempt by a Scottish theatre-maker to address the problems of racism. The North American context, of course, allows a sufficient distance for the audience to be outraged by the behaviour of the racists without necessarily accepting their own complicity. The final scene, that attempts to generate a sudden sympathy by recalling the events that led to the initial sale of the property to an African American couple, tries to shove the philosophy back into a traditional theatrical structure, and the clumsy inclusion of other oppressions in the second act, undermine the focus and precision of Norris' reflections, but as a response to the problems Emans acknowledges in his programme notes, this is, at least, the start of a conversation.
Touring until Sat 12 Oct.