My most memorable moment as a theatre critic occurred several months ago at Burlington County Footlighters. During a production of The Fox on the Fairway, they used my name during the show. I’m sure glad my name didn’t come up during their 2nd Stage presentation of Clybourne Park. I much rather prefer having my golfing ability questioned in a public forum than getting associated with the themes in this story. In addition to a sense of relief, Footlighters treated me to a thought provoking and entertaining performance on June 16th.
Bruce Norris’ 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning drama also received the 2012 Tony Award for best play. The story addressed the topic of racism in America. The first act occurred in 1959 and the second fifty years later in 2009. With housing as the background, it explored the state of race relations in American society during two different time periods.
The playwright used an interesting technique. The same actors played different characters in acts one and two. All had a personal connection to either the neighborhood or the home that served as the play’s lone setting. It led to some unsettling discussions involving race. In the first act, white people fought the perceived encroachment by African Americans into the community. Over time the neighborhood demographic shifted becoming predominantly African American. Mr. Norris then added an interesting twist. In the second act, the African Americans fought to preserve the neighborhood’s historical heritage from white people’s interference.
Sensitive theatregoers should be forewarned: Mr. Norris’ show featured raw dialog. It made me feel uncomfortable during the second act when the characters discussed racial matters. During the first act I found the conversation just painful. The characters seemed very timid as though they struggled to understand one another, but just couldn’t find the right way to communicate their thoughts. The discussion in the 2009 act deteriorated into anger and resentment. The racist jokes from both sides compounded the animosity.
Shows that require actors to play multiple characters challenge thespians. Most times that’s because their roles possess antithetical traits to one another. Clybourne Park took an original approach to this technique. Even though the cast played different characters, the roles they performed possessed the same values and beliefs. The difference showed in how they chose to express them.
Performers Sheldon Jackson and Nina Law played the African American couple in both scenes. In the first act, Ms. Law took on the role of an ostensibly obedient domestic servant. She always seemed hesitant or uncomfortable when speaking to her employer Bev (Kathy Harmer). Her open expressions of frustration and defiance towards her husband showed her true character. I credit Ms. Law for executing this challenging balancing act so well.
Mr. Jackson removed his hat and recited a series of “yes, ma’am”s when addressing his wife’s employer. While overtly polite, his mannerisms and speech reflected an underlying tension.
In the second act, they transitioned into more assertive people. Mr. Jackson physically confronted Steve (Fred Ezell) in response to his insulting his wife. Ms. Law crossed her arms and legs, pursed her lips while attending the meeting, thus expressing contempt through her mannerisms. Then she confronted Steve when he intimated his views on race.
Both Mr. Jackson and Ms. Law animated these challenging emotions brilliantly. Their counterparts as the white couple, Fred Ezell and Stevie Neale, did the same.
In the first act, Mr. Ezell looked and sounded the role of someone fighting to preserve his “progressive community.” He struggled when explaining how “different” people were, well, “different.” He held his hat in front of him as if metaphorically trying to conceal the character’s true inner feelings.
Stevie Neale turned in an extraordinary performance as a deaf woman; someone incapable of hearing the goings on around her. Ms. Neale’s manner of speaking demonstrated that she took the time to research and comprehend the role.
In the second act, the hat was gone and Mr. Ezell’s character let loose. While managing to repress and feign his feelings he eventually expressed his views with abandon; even telling a bigoted joke.
During this portion of the show Ms. Neale’s character couldn’t avoid hearing her husband’s views. While reserved at first, she also became enraged at the course of the conversation. As with the African American wife in the first act, she directed it at her husband.
In the first act, Kathy Harmer played an outstanding 1950s wife. She expressively pranced about the room discussing trite matters with her husband. Even with the stresses of an uncertain future following a horrible family tragedy, she exhibited a sense of optimism. In the second she became a dull lawyer.
Jonathan Edmonson ran the emotional gamut in Clybourne Park. This performer transitioned from a priest in the first act to an attorney in the second. (It’s hard to imagine any two roles more oppositional than these.) His calm reserve in response to Russ’ (Al Krier) insults gave way to impatience and aggravation in act two. Later in the show he returned in the role of a somber, distraught man.
Al Krier always makes himself unique in his performances. Usually he does so through his costuming. While the bandana he wore in act two did present a rather unique look for him, he distinguished himself in the first act. In yet another example of why I’m glad my name didn’t come up the show, he instructed a priest (Jonathan Edmonson) to go “f–k himself.”
Mr. Krier turned in an extraordinary performance even by the standard of excellence I expect from him. In the first act, he played a father with anger issues over a family tragedy. He convincingly played someone trying to repress his emotions; especially, by the calm way he delivered the line in the preceding paragraph. Later in the scene he vented his rage at the community itself. In the second act, he refocused and became the show’s comic relief.
The play contained a range of dialog; some of it very tense and other portions rather comical. I didn’t care for the opening of both acts with banal discussions. The conversations droned on far too long for the effect the playwright wanted to achieve. I’d encourage audience members to be patient and endure them. Beyond that one shortcoming, I found the rest of the story well written.
As with a previous visit to Footlighters 2nd Stage, I had the opportunity to sit next to the director. (Blogging about community theatre has its perks.) Carla Ezell laughed heartily during the comedic lines. That impressed me. She’s worked on this show with the cast and crew for months. Familiar dialog still drawing that kind of reaction from her demonstrated her enthusiasm. That passion carried over into the performances.
Clybourne Park brought an uncomfortable part of the American experience to the stage. With that noted, a diverse audience attended the same performance I did. Not one attendee walked out. No one reacted in anger. It led me to believe that just maybe, should Mr. Norris add a third act covering the year 2059, the characters would behave with more civility towards one another. For now, theatre fans can attend the conflict laden version at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd stage through June 24th.