Sometimes racism dresses itself up in the most sensible clothes.
In Bruce Norris’ play “Clybourne Park,” which opened Friday night in 710 Main Theatre, it enters from stage left wearing a loose brown suit, red tie and 1950s-style wire-frame glasses. When it opens its smirking mouth, it pours out a stream of syllables that sound exactly like well-mannered and well-meaning American English, the better to embroider the ugly message it carries.
That message, delivered by Matt Witten in an extraordinary performance in the play’s first act, is nothing less vile or virulent than this: “Black people don’t belong in my neighborhood.”
This is the gut reaction that motivates Norris’ work, a riff on Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun.” It is set entirely in a Chicago house whose walls tell the story of “white flight,” declining prosperity and burgeoning gentrification that has played out in so many neighborhoods across the United States.
The production, which takes place in 1959 and 2009, is a smart choice by Road Less Traveled Productions and its community-minded co-founder, Scott Behrend, who directs the show. As Buffalo’s struggling neighborhoods continue to reel from the effects of last century’s exodus to the suburbs, Western New Yorkers will be able to find themselves in the mirror this show holds up. The reflection is not flattering.
In the first act, we get a glimpse into the dying days of the urban middle-class dream. Bev (Lisa Vitrano) and her husband, Russ (the phenomenal David Mitchell), are getting ready for their big move to the suburbs. They’ve sold their house to a black family – though we never see them, they’re meant to be the central characters in “A Raisin in the Sun.” Their neighbor Karl (Witten) cannot abide this situation and tries to persuade them to go back on the deal.
Karl’s increasingly agitated tap-dance around the subject is met with Russ’ expletive-riddled answer, which, Norris seems to suggest, is the only sensible response. But in the second act, as a group of lawyers and neighborhood residents sit in the now-disheveled living room to discuss plans to knock it down and build a new house in its place, it doesn’t seem to have done any good.
In this act, Witten plays half of the white couple that has purchased the house after years of abandonment opposite the hilarious Diane Curley. Though he has his own woefully misguided ideas about race, he is the only character willing to talk about those biases out loud. He is rebuked constantly by many of the other characters, who seem determined to follow the same circuitous choreography around the issue as the sad sacks in the first act.
What’s especially impressive about the play is that it surrounds the serious issue at its core with so much riotous humor. These range from wildly inappropriate jokes that have the audience reeling to more subtle characterizations, from Witten and others, that draw out the comic absurdities of their situations. Behrend’s direction is characteristically smart and well-paced, though some minor timing issues did crop up on opening night.
Norris’ play is a practical, if not cynical, reading of the way racism has become a smarter and stronger virus in the days since white flight. He means to draw a comparison between the way people talked about race in the 1960s and the way we talk about it today. And the conclusion he reaches – that as a society we have not become less racist, but only better at coding, covering and excusing our racial biases – is less than optimistic.
In an effort not to offend one another, we have too often opted not to speak. In its painful, painstaking and surprisingly humorous way, “Clybourne Park” reminds us that talking out loud about racial bias – which still haunts nearly every aspect of our segregated city’s daily life and politics – is perhaps the only hope we have of curing it.
3½ stars (Out of 4)
What: “Clybourne Park”
When: Through Dec. 1
Where: 710 Main Theatre, 710 Main St.
Tickets: $19.50 to $36.50
Info: 629-3069 or roadlesstraveledproductions.org