Karl Linder is the representative of the neighbors association “welcoming committee” over in Clybourne Park — an all-white suburb in late-1950s Chicago — who appears in two plays presented concurrently by Center Theatre Group: The first is Ebony Repertory Theatre's production of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 modern classic about race relations in America, A Raisin in the Sun, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, after an acclaimed run last year at the Nate Holden Theatre on Washington Boulevard. The second is the 2011 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for drama, scheduled to open on Broadway later this season, Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, which picks up where Raisin left off and then extends it half a century, in Act 2, to 2009. Norris' play is at the Mark Taper Forum with much the same cast (and director) as when it opened in 2010 in New York at Playwrights' Horizons, a co-producer here as well.
Linder, a white guy and a minor character in both works, is the key opening the padlock that binds the two works, the embodiment of the kind of racism in America that's so hard to name. It's so hard to name that the gallery of characters in the contemporary, now dilapidated Clybourne Park of Act 2 in Norris' play spend most of the act dancing around naming it as the reason there's such tension among them.
Linder isn't a “Hang 'em high and lynch 'em” brand of bigot. He probably isn't even a guy who'd propose separate drinking fountains. In Raisin he's played by Scott Mosenson as a genial fella in a suit and tie who arrives at the South Side tenement apartment of the black Youngers (where the entire play takes place), having learned they've found the funds to purchase a home in Clybourne Park. Mosenson's Karl is the suburbs' Paul E. Wilson — the attorney assigned to defend segregation and its “separate but equal” logic in the early Brown vs. Board of Education cases. He approaches the Youngers with anthropological arguments, that different people who eat different kinds of foods, who attend different kinds of churches and who are temperamentally distinct are perhaps not best suited to be neighbors. And with those arguments, he offers to purchase back the home with funds from the Clybourne Park neighbors association so that the Youngers actually come out ahead, financially — if only they'll stay away.
The Younger family of Hansberry's drama is able to face down “the man” with the kind of righteous indignation that will fuel the civil rights movement. The drama ends with the sight of packing boxes on Michael Ganio's set.
Norris' play opens with packing boxes all over Daniel Ostling's set, depicting the Clybourne Park home of the Caucasian sellers as imagined by Norris, Russ and Bev (Frank Wood and Christina Kirk), a couple still suffering pangs of their own personal tragedy, eager to move on and out.
Re-enter Karl Linder in Clybourne Park, here played by Jeremy Shamos in a comparatively glib style that recalls a 1950s-era sitcom, particularly with Linder's ill-timed arrival during a domestic dispute and his having to ask the sellers if they know exactly who is buying their home, which they don't — and don't really care, not because they're liberals or fans of the liberal Supreme Court of that era or of its Brown vs. Board of Education decision, but because they simply don't care. Back on his own Clybourne Park turf, Linder's pleading argument that Russ and Bev not sell to a black family has nothing to do with anthropology, and everything to do with property values. And there's a discomfiting truth to Linder's argument born of white flight that Norris doesn't back away from, even when Pam MacKinnon's production tries to mask it by rendering Linder a bit of a clown.
This isn't a flaw but the difference in style, firmly grasped by Raisin's director, Phylicia Rashad, and Clybourne's director, MacKinnon, between a drama teetering into melodrama and a social satire. Norris knows humor reveals fractures that lie beneath, so his 2009 characters, some black, some white, end up telling jokes across the race divide that are like small missiles: a white guy telling a joke he says he heard told by a black guy, “Did you hear the one about the guy who finds himself in prison with a black cell mate … ,” or the crack told by Lena (a black woman) to Lindsey (a white woman), “Why is a white woman like a tampon?” (For the punch lines, see the play.) When a community of people fail to find the same jokes amusing, they're not really a community.
These people from 2009 are not what you'd first think of as racists: There's an upwardly mobile white couple, Lindsey and Steve (Annie Parisse and Shamos, whose return from playing Karl Linder in Act 1 is one in many wry touches of double casting), hoping to tear down and “restore” the now abandoned, graffiti-ridden home purchased in the late 1950s by the interloping, black Younger family in Hansberry's drama, which they've now bought 50 years later. By 2009, Clybourne Park is a black neighborhood, the white couple are the racial interlopers having to face down the neighborhood association rep, Lena (Crystal A. Dickinson, double-cast from playing the maid in Act 1), who just happens to be the great-niece of, and named after, Lena Younger, the buyer from Hansberry's play in 1959. Lena has an attorney (Kirk) in tow in order to reinforce the idea that the teardown/build-out plans for Lindsey and Steve's hoped-for McMansion violate local zoning codes — particularly the new second floor, which would exceed the current height restrictions. (Chicago put through ordinances restricting McMansions at just about the same time as Los Angeles, in late 2008, so Norris was able to squeeze through the issue as a symbol of white vulgarity just before it would have expired as a current topic of zoning law.)
While all politely acknowledge that Clybourne Park is now economically blighted, Lena speaks considerably about honoring the stories of the people who have lived in the neighborhood for decades. The new home buyers speak of how much they, too, “love” the neighborhood, implying that their aim is to improve it through the gentrification their plans will bring.
For all the polite dancing around legal issues and honoring of the lives and traditions of those who went before, it takes Steve to finally say the word nobody wants to utter: race.
When Lena counters that the issue is actually the size and scale of Lindsey and Steve's McMansion, that the issue is really taste, you can hear echoes of Hansberry's Karl Linder and his anthropological arguments about food and culture, and that despite the headway made by Brown vs. Board of Education and the civil rights movement, birds of a feather still flock together. And you can hear Norris' mockery of idealism's veneer.
Center Theatre Group is here fulfilling a role carved by founding Artistic Director Gordon Davidson, to produce plays that grapple with race relations. Under Artistic Director Michael Ritchie, however, CTG has slowly evolved into less of a producing entity than a presenting one. CTG holds three theaters in its dominion (the Taper, the Douglas and the Ahmanson). Rather than building new plays from the ground up, it has imported these two spectacular productions (one local, one from New York) in order to address a theme of searing national relevance. With this duo of plays, CTG is more of a curator than a producer. Though it's a welcome curatorial choice, it's a sign of the times for our larger institutional theaters, and their capacity for economic viability while fulfilling some larger purpose.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN | By Lorraine Hansberry | Presented by Ebony Repertory Theatre and Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. | Through Feb. 19 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org
CLYBOURNE PARK | By Bruce Norris | Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m. | Through Feb. 26 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org