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

Published: Wednesday, July 29 2015 12:51 a.m. MDT

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

Celeste Ciulla (Bev), from left, Erika Rose (Francine) and David Manis (Russ) in Pioneer Theatre Company's "Clybourne Park." (ALEX WEISMAN, ICEWOLFPHOTOGRAPHY.COM) Celeste Ciulla (Bev), from left, Erika Rose (Francine) and David Manis (Russ) in Pioneer Theatre Company's "Clybourne Park." (ALEX WEISMAN, ICEWOLFPHOTOGRAPHY.COM)

“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.”

“The more we rehearsed this play, even though the characters and their backgrounds from one act to the next are markedly different, at core what they represent are very similar to one another,” he says. “The challenge is allowing it, not feeling the need to make them different for the sake of making them different, but being truthful to what the characters have to say. The deeper we go into the play, the more universal it becomes, to the point that audience members sees themselves in one or more of the characters on the stage.”

Will the circle of racial disharmony be unbroken?

“That would be a wonderful thing and I’m ever hopeful,” Douglas says. “I’m not sure if it will happen in my lifetime, but I have great faith that all ills will be healed. But it can’t happen until we actually address the underlying, fundamental chasm that exists between blacks and whites in America, and so far collectively as a country we haven’t been able to get there.”

Content advisory: Strong language, including profanities and vulgarities, including deliberately offensive racist and sexist jokes

If you go

What: “Clybourne Park”

Where: Pioneer Theatre Company

When: Feb. 15-March 2 at 7:30 p.m. on Mondays–Thursdays, 8 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, and 2 p.m. on Saturday matinees

How much: $25-$44 in advance or $5 more day of show, with half-price tickets for children over age 5 through grade 12 on Mondays and Tuesdays

Tickets: 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company