Book Review: Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris

This award-winning play starts during the plot of Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (see my review from last week). We see the drama in Hansberry’s play from the perspective of Russ and Bev, who are selling their house because of bad memories that have happened within it. They don’t seem to care that, by allowing the first black family to purchase a home in an all-white neighborhood, they are causing a firestorm of controversy.

The play is so easy to read that it’s difficult. Reading down the page, sometimes there are conversations carried on with each person saying only one or two words. Sometimes these conversations are funny, but there are often deeper, less humorous things happening beneath the surface. Race relations are brought up early enough with Francine (and her husband Albert) working for the white family. The way Bev and Russ treat “the help” reminds us of the time period, 1959, and the controversy of the original play.

Also making a comeback from the original is Karl Lindner, the man who offered Hansberry’s original characters a great deal of money not to move into the all-white neighborhood. My favorite part of this play is what a jerk Karl is in this play as well. There wasn’t much characterization of him in Hansberry’s original, and I think Norris had a bit of fun with this guy. Betsy, Karl’s wife, is deaf, and I wonder if that’s the only reason she’s married him—because she can’t truly hear what a jerk he is. Still, she must know. Karl fusses about everything from a black family moving in to the neighborhood and the temperature of his iced tea. He is even asked to leave.  But again, this establishes the motif of deafness—either real or metaphorical.

Most jarring about this first section is the trouble that Russ and Bev are dealing with: their son committed suicide after it seems he couldn’t adapt to life again after experiencing war.  He had been accused of killing innocent people during his tour of duty, and he couldn’t handle the guilt. This adds a whole new dimension to the original play; it becomes the reason the Youngers were able to afford such a home when all the other, similar houses were priced much higher. Still, we learn that the Youngers never knew of the history of the house they bought; it seems the family (Bev and Russ) did not want to disclose that information in the interest of selling their home.

In the second part of the play, 2009, a white family is discussing plans to raze the original structure and build a better, bigger house upon it. This first scene is ridiculously uncomfortable, with the couple discussing various by-laws and architectural requirements with other officials and lawyers. They can’t seem to stay focused on one conversation, and as a reader I just wanted to slap them all. In the midst of this ridiculous conversation, Lena keeps trying to speak. She is the great-niece of Lena Younger, the grandmother in A Raisin in the Sun.

In this act, Lena returns to remind everyone of the history of the house (the fact that her great-aunt worked hard to earn the money for the house). It seems, however, that her real concern is that the renovation will start to improve the neighborhood so much that it will start pricing people out of it. It’s noted that the neighborhood, in proximity to the city, is meant to be a working-class neighborhood, but Lena implies that there is now a plan to change that, changing the demographics of the neighborhood along with the housing renovations.  

I found it interesting that the baby motif is continued from the original play. Everyone in the play seems to be expecting. In the original, this was a source of great hope—the perpetuity of one’s family through subsequent generations. This theme is furthered by Lena’s presence, reminding everyone of the history of the neighborhood (despite the fact that the group then gets distracted by discussing how integrating races actually brought more crime to the neighborhood—and then sheepishly try to cover up what had been said). In the end, there’s an argument between the new couple about the expected baby, which it seems the husband doesn’t even want. Hauntingly, the final scene returns to the theme of children, as we see the troubled soldier sitting down to write a note—we know it’s his suicide note—in the presence of his mother.

In the end, there’s a lot to analyze in this play, and it would be helpful to see it performed. In short, everyone has problems and agendas, and—like Walter and Ruth in Hansberry’s original—people rarely, if ever, truly see eye to eye.