Art, explained: Paul Bradley of ‘Clybourne Park’

In a one-two punch of gentrification, merely months after D.C. has lost its African American majority, Woolly Mammoth Theatre has brought back “Clybourne Park.” Bruce Norris’ play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama this year, examines a neighborhood before it undergoes two major demographic shifts: the first, in 1959, as the first black residents are about to move into a white neighborhood, and the second, in 2009, as the first gentrifying white residents are about to move into a black neighborhood.

While the inhabitants change over the decade, one thing remains constant: the house at the center of the play’s action. James Kronzer designed the set — a bungalow, built nearly to scale, that juts out into the seating area and almost touches the ceiling. It is one of the biggest sets Woolly Mammoth has ever built. Kronzer’s designs were executed by Paul Bradley, the theater’s technical director. Here, Bradley speaks about the challenges of building a house within a theater, and of living in a city where neighborhoods are in flux.

“It’s a bungalow-style house, very Arts and Crafts. Chicago’s never referenced in the play, so it could be D.C., it could be New York. A lot of the houses in Del Ray, Virginia, are like this, so we went there to study them. Most of what the audience can see is the living room, the dining room, and above that is the son’s room. . . .

“We have a three-person crew come out during intermission. They remove the columns, the molding, the carpet. The intermission [set change] is like a mini show. More people stay for this intermission than any other show we’ve had. All the furniture is strategically placed over holes in the wall and the floor. All the light fixtures come off of the wall. We had to rehearse it many, many times with the crew. The thing is really choreographed to a T. People commented about it being a performance.

“I live in Alexandria. I have been to a lot of the neighborhoods — the Petworth area, Columbia Heights, a lot of areas in Northeast — that are being gentrified. The same themes in the play are here. I don’t like that some of the people are getting put out of their neighborhoods, that rents are going up. I have mixed feelings about it. I don’t like to see the neighborhoods so run-down.

“I bought a house that was built back in the ’50s. It was not updated — it had the original kitchen, but things were a little run-down. I gutted most of it. My idea is in the next few years to sell it — it’s an investment house. It’s nice for me to be able to have a job where I build a fake house on stage and then go home and apply those skills to a real one.

“The house really is a character. That’s why we tried to make it really authentic.”

Clybourne Park

through Aug. 14 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Visit woollymammoth.net or call 202-393-3939.

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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