Two black teenagers had been handcuffed in the middle of the street and were being led by police officers to a waiting cruiser. Neighbors had flowed out of their houses to watch the public procession of the teens, who had been accused of robbing a nearby house. Suddenly, Behrend recalled, his neighbor's front door flew open and a man emerged screaming at the top of his lungs.
“He throws open the door, like right out of a play,” said Behrend. The man, who turned out to be his neighbor's brother, launched into an expletive-laden diatribe, hurling racial slurs at the teens, accusing them of destroying his once-prosperous white neighborhood and instructing them in no uncertain terms to go back to where they came from.
“I'll never forget that,” said Behrend, the director of the progressive Buffalo theater company Road Less Traveled Productions. That moment has been much on Behrend's mind in the past few months as he and his company have prepared a production of Bruce Norris' Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play “Clybourne Park,” which opened Friday night in 710 Main Theatre.
The production, perhaps the company's highest-profile play yet – if you don't count a handful of readings featuring Behrend's stalwart supporter Alec Baldwin – explores the dark and very much beating heart of racism in modern American cities.
“I realized at that moment, like man, there's a lot of people out there that we don't even have access to. So we've got to be even more vigilant with the people we do, to hopefully keep spreading that education and knowledge. That's the 'Clybourne Park' story.”
The play, which takes place across several decades, centers on a single house in the Chicago neighborhood after which the play is titled.
In the first act, Norris depicts the house and the fraught lives of its white occupants during the beginning of the urban exodus to the suburbs in the 1950s. In the second act, set in the 2000s, the house has fallen into utter disrepair after years of abandonment, but a wealthy white couple has bought it and plans to build a modern McMansion in its place.
Woven into the fabric of “Clybourne Park” are many of the issues Buffalo has been dealing with for the past half-century as its urban core has hollowed out and formerly prosperous neighborhoods have slid into disrepair or worse. It touches on issues of white flight, the stark suburban-urban divide, gentrification and historic preservation. And now, as the prevailing mood about downtrodden Buffalo neighborhoods gradually shifts from defeatist malaise to guarded optimism, the play seems to have a built-in relevance.
“I think that certainly there are places on Grant Street, there are places on the East Side, there are places on the West Side where people are going in and revitalizing whole neighborhoods,” Behrend said. “I think this is the future of what's going to be happening in Buffalo.”
But beyond the superficial issues of urban decline and the disturbing rumblings of gentrification, Norris' play also initiates an uncomfortable conversation about racism in American living rooms. It explores the way racism dresses itself up in presentable outfits, lies dormant in unexpected places and becomes a silent partner in so many ostensibly progressive endeavors.
Its characters talk above, beneath, around and through racism in ever more complicated ways throughout the play, an intentional tactic from Norris designed to emphasize how such conversations remain.
In Buffalo and other highly segregated cities, those who talk about race in the clearest and most direct terms are usually people like Behrend's angry neighbor. Or like the South Buffalo resident who stunned Western New Yorkers in 2011 when he gave an interview to WIVB in which he claimed racially motivated arsons wouldn't happen if people stayed in their own neighborhoods and that “a lot of people feel this way, they just won't say it.”
But Behrend, with Norris' help, intends to speak in direct terms, out loud, from an entirely different perspective.
“I want you to go home and I want you to think about 'Clybourne Park' and talk to your friends about it. Maybe you're going to have a different conversation about it with one of your African-American friends. Maybe you're going to talk to the guy you work with about it,” Behrend said. “I think there's things to be learned that will filter into a general consciousness.”
“Clybourne Park” runs through Dec. 1 in 710 Main Theatre, 710 Main St. Tickets are $19.50 to $36.50. Call 629-3069 for more info, or visit roadlesstraveledproductions.org