Playwright explores race relations in 'Clybourne Park' at Woolly Mammoth Theatre

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010; WE43

The election of a black president may have caused some to declare the arrival of a post-racial America, but playwright Bruce Norris considers another reality: that perhaps, when it comes to race relations, not much has changed. Not since the election, and maybe not since the 1950s.

"It's a very dicey thing to talk about, because I'm white. So whatever I'm going to say . . . is by definition limited," says Norris, whose dramedy "Clybourne Park" opens Monday at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. But in the absence of open discussion about race, Norris has found a button-pushing niche: "I enjoy a good argument, probably more than anything else," the 49-year-old playwright says from New York, where the play is in the midst of a successful off-Broadway run. "One of the best ways to get people to argue is to delve into a controversial subject."

And so it is that political correctness frays like nerves in fictional Clybourne Park, where neighbors are pitted against neighbors -- white against black, and vice versa -- in a war over housing.

Clybourne Park is the same white Chicago neighborhood that a black family intends to integrate in Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking 1959 play, "A Raisin in the Sun."

Norris casts a funhouse mirror on that story. Act One portrays the neighborhood just as the first black family is getting ready to move in (presumably the Youngers of Hansberry's tale).

Act Two fast-forwards to present day, when the neighborhood, now mostly black, contends with a new set of outsiders: a white couple who, along with the Whole Foods, has become the inadvertent symbols of gentrification.

"His whole career, [Norris] has been interested in that fault line across race and culture," says Woolly Mammoth's artistic director, Howard Shalwitz. He is a satirist, to be sure, Shalwitz says, but a better label may be "provocateur."

"You see plays that deal with race that have lots of white characters, and you see plays that deal with race that have lots of black characters," Shalwitz explains. "But to have all of them together, that's where the danger is, and that's why Bruce is one of the essential writers of our time."

In "The Unmentionables," produced by Woolly in 2007, Norris took hard aim at do-gooder imperialism in Africa. And references to the current wars are woven into much of his work as well.

"Clybourne Park," Norris says, may be about a sense of home, but it is in many ways about boundary wars, too. All the issues are the same, he says: "human territoriality, the colonialist impulse in people, and people's reluctance to surrender their territory to others."

Peace doesn't come easy in "Clybourne Park."

That, Shalwitz says with a laugh, "wouldn't be as much fun."

Clybourne Park Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. Monday through April 11. $27-$62. Pay-what-you-can performances Monday and Tuesday at 8 p.m.

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