It should be a matter of civic pride that Woolly was there at the birth of this ingenious comedy of racial anxiety, inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s tide-turning 1959 drama, “A Raisin in the Sun.” Set in two eras in the same house in a fading and then, half a century later, gentrifying Chicago neighborhood, the play rummages, if you will, in the eternally unfinished basement of American race relations. It is a play about people thinking they don’t sound exactly the way they do.
“Clybourne” immerses itself in a lot of other intriguing notions, many revolving around that class-and-culture-uniting American obsession: property values. Under Shalwitz’s inspired guidance, the actors stake out memorable identities in each of the two divergent acts, as allies and adversaries in a struggle over claims to turf, to security, to history, as well as the future of the country. You’ll intuit, in the unease and tension stirred in an enclave where the sense of who belongs keeps changing, that “Clybourne Park” might just as well have been titled “H Street Corridor” or “U Street NW.”
The conceit is that the house — in scale and detail, an achievement in theatrical delight by set designer James Kronzer — is the one that has been sold to the Youngers, the fictional black family of “Raisin” that, in Hansberry’s telling, encounters a wall of hostility as it tries to move into a white neighborhood. Norris’s Act 1 takes place in 1959, as sellers Russ (Mitchell Hebert) and Bev (Jennifer Mendenhall), amid packing boxes, are confronted by their white neighbors — most aggressively by Cody Nickells’s starchy local Rotarian, Karl — to pressure them to stop the sale. It’s a case of, according to the offensive Karl, letting one ethnically different family in and the whole neighborhood going to seed.
The second act propels us to 2009 in the same house and an entirely new set of demographic parameters. Now, a white yuppie couple from the suburbs, pregnant Lindsey (Kimberly Gilbert) and outwardly enlightened Steve (Nickell, again) have bought and are seeking to demolish the house, a property that has historical and emotional value to an enclave in the city that is now predominantly black.
What unfolds across time are two discussions, each reflecting on elements of the other, and which taken as a whole demonstrate how feebly have developed our skills at talking to one another across racial lines. In each act, a black couple — played superbly both times by Dawn Ursula and Jefferson A. Russell — is drawn into the argument, and it is the alternately delicate and blunt-force nature of how the white characters treat them that provokes some of the evening’s biggest — and bitterest — laughs.