Clybourne Park Examines Racism, Suicide, and Class

If any of the topics in the title could potentially upset you, then you might not want to read on. There’s some strong language here, too.

From Friday, April 17th to Sunday, April 19th,  Lynchburg College staged a production of Bruce Norris’ play Clybourne Park. Those familiar with the play will recognize it as the unofficial sequel to the classic play A Raisin in the Sun, taking place both directly after the original play in the first act, and 50 years later in the second act.

The first act of the play (taking place in 1959) focuses on a white family that has sold their home to a black family. Their sudden move is triggered by the suicide of their son, who was a veteran of the Korean war that was ultimately undone by his PTSD. There are gut-wrenching scenes in which the audience can see how easily torn apart the family has become after the death of their son. The prospect of a black family moving into a white neighborhood, however, does not sit well with their neighbors, and an increasingly tense argument breaks out within the living room of the sold house. Fake pleasantries turn to anger, which turn to screaming, and eventual violence.

One character is certain that the arrival of one black family will pave the way for more, and in the second act we see that he was correct, as 50 years later the situation is reversed:  a white family wants to move into the very same home that is now nestled in an all black neighborhood. Once more, race becomes the focal point, as a black family that lives in the neighborhood expresses their discomfort with the new family’s arrival, citing that the home is historic because of how it was occupied by the first black family in the area.

The reversal – placed decades into the future – shows very quickly and purposely that things haven’t changed as much as we might like to think. The same concerns are raised (“your kind will flock to the neighborhood,” “you’ll change the property values,” and several others come up several times in both acts) and the issue of class is always present (there are questions of how the black family afforded the house, and of why the white family would take the home when they could afford something better).

The lingering feeling that society has been stagnant for half a century is legitimately uncomfortable, and all the while it is punctuated by offensive and hilarious jokes that seem designed to make you question whether or not you should be laughing (one that stood out amongst the rest was “Why are white women like tampons? They’re both stuck up cunts.”)

Amongst the issues, though, is a lingering tension in the second act as characters are initially afraid to speak their minds for fear of being labeled racist, leading to a moment in the second act in which a character says something to the tune of “Can’t we all just be adults about this and say what we mean instead of insinuating things?” I felt that this was a fascinating piece of social commentary, as we live in a society in which people seem increasingly afraid to be misinterpreted. In fact, most of the second act was built upon a slow series of blunders in which the characters either misspoke or said something that came out as unintentionally racist. The characters in the first act, on the other hand, were perfectly content to spout off racist sayings, all the while assuring themselves that they are not racist and are simply presenting facts of life.

The play ultimately culminates in a scene in which we see the son of the white family writing his suicide letter. Coupled with previous scenes in the play, it screams “Is this what this man fought for? Did he become so damaged in the service of a country that is this dysfunctional? Does our continued squabbling render his death in vain?”

More intriguing than the actual play, however, were the casting choices. The lead role of the first act – the white man who had sold his home to a black family – was played by Lynchburg College’s Chris Merritt, an incredibly talented actor who is of mixed race, being half African-American and half Caucasian. In a play so deeply mired in issues of race and racism, I found the choice to cast him bold, as it was a clear setting aside of any prescribed race for the character, and seems to have been a choice based entirely upon his talent.

I had the opportunity to speak to Chris about his role in the play. When asked about how he developed the character and what perspective he brought to the role, Chris said “I based my [portrayal] off of my grandfather, who was a white male, and was actually racist at the time when my parents were dating. So I used some of his mannerisms to develop this character.” Chris also noted that the director was initially surprised when Chris auditioned for the role of a white character, and that they ultimately decided to use makeup to lighten his skin tone for the duration of the first act.

While the play itself may show us how little things have changed, the casting helps to show that there has been some progress, and that there may still be hope for our society to rise above outdated notions of race and to leave them in the past where they belong.

Full Disclosure:  While I don’t believe it to have affected this article, I must admit that Chris Merritt is a good friend of mine.

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