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Theater preview: Director shares personal connection to 'Clybourne Park'

Published: Saturday, Feb. 9 2013 1:30 p.m. MST

Erika Rose (Francine), left, and Celeste Ciulla (Bev) in Pioneer Theatre Company's "Clybourne Park."

ALEX WEISMAN, ICEWOLFPHOTOGRAPHY.COM

SALT LAKE CITY — For Timothy Douglas, “Clybourne Park” is a significant piece of theater because “I’ve lived it.”

The Pulitzer, Tony and Olivier Award-winning comedic drama, receiving its Utah premiere at the Pioneer Theatre in a production directed by Douglas, deals with race, money and the politics of property.

“One of the things that has been most exciting to me working on it is that, I believe this is true, I’m the first black director to get to direct the project,” Douglas says. “I think it makes a difference, seeing this play through the perspective of a minority rather than a majority. I’ve seen other productions of it, which have been fantastic, but I’ve been left wanting, thinking that certain things did not get revealed simply because the head storyteller just didn’t understand the intricacies of what it is to be a minority in America.”

“Clybourne Park” is a companion piece to “A Raisin in the Sun,” the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway and, coincidentally, the first play with a black director. Lorraine Hansberry's historic, semi-autobiographical play follows an African-American Chicago family in the late 1950s who inherit a large sum of money that could help each member of the Younger family achieve their dreams. The story ends with the family buying a home in a primarily white Chicago neighborhood with the address of 406 Clybourne St.

“It’s a wonderful, theatrical, dynamic piece,” Douglas says. “The first act takes place in 1959 and the second 50 years later, with the umbrella to that is the fact that it’s a direct riff on the iconic ‘Raisin in the Sun.’ So purely on a theatrical level, I was very interested in doing it. The playwright, Bruce Norris, in a bold and fantastic way, unleashes a light to shine on just how difficult it is for Americans to talk about race relations.”

In the first act of “Clybourne Park,” set in 1959, we meet Bev and Russ, a white couple who are about to sell their house to the Youngers (who are talked about but never seen). “Raisin” and “Clybourne Park” have one character in common: Karl. In “Raisin,” Karl tried to bribe the black family not to move into the all-white enclave. In this play, having failed that, as president of the neighborhood association he tries to get the troubled white sellers to rescind the sale.

A group of outraged white neighbors also arrive, each claiming to be a good liberal but drawing the line at living next door to blacks. One asks, “Who shall we invite next, the Red Chinese?”

In the next few decades, the neighborhood becomes a black neighborhood. Act 2 is set in 2009 in the same Clybourne Park home. The great-niece of the long-departed Younger family matriarch returns as a community representative and expresses concern that the historical character of the neighborhood will be compromised. A white couple, Steve and Lindsey, plan to tear down the now-dilapidated home and rebuild, representing the new wave of gentrification. A seemingly civil discussion about easements and property lines begins, but then deteriorates as offensive jokes are exchanged and facades exposed.

Beyond the twin time-period structure of the play, “Clybourne Park” is also unique for its double-casting of actors as characters that both reinforce and contradict one another from Act 1 to Act 2.

To explain that artistic challenge, Douglas quotes Maya Angelou: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

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