Sunday, February 20, 2011

Riling Up a Modern Audience, part 2 - "Clybourne Park" at ACT

As I said in my earlier post, I was very curious to see Bruce Norris' play Clybourne Park at ACT, because I wanted to see how the San Francisco audience would react to this intentionally provocative play, which explicitly takes race and gentrification as its themes.

Act I of Clybourne Park takes place in 1959. A black family is about to move into a white middle-class Chicago neighborhood, and the neighbors are "concerned," in that patronizing 1950s way. (The black family happens to be the Youngers from A Raisin in the Sun, but I'm not going to go into that aspect of the play here.) The racial dynamics of this act will be familiar to fans of Mad Men and other contemporary works that take place in the 1950s and 1960s. It allows the audience to feel superior to the white characters, who are so paternalistic, and sympathize with the black maid and her husband, who clearly can't stand being around these people.

Norris lulls us into a false sense of security in Act I ("wow, haven't things gotten so much better since 1959?" we say) in order to play the provocateur in Act II, which takes place 50 years later. After the Younger family moved into Clybourne Park, more and more black families followed them. In the 1970s and 1980s, the neighborhood was seriously troubled with poverty and violence. Since that time, it has slowly gentrified, to the point where white families are starting to move back into what is now a "historical" black neighborhood. Act II depicts a young white couple who have just bought a house in Clybourne Park (the same house as in Act I), and want to expand it. A black couple from the neighborhood has engaged a lawyer to try to stop them from renovating the house and disrupting the historic character of the neighborhood. But obviously, there is more to this dispute than just architecture.

In Act I, three of the characters were straight, white, middle-class men -- the archetypes of privilege. In Act II, just one of them is: Steve, the yuppie who bought the house. Everyone else is an "Other": two white women, a black woman, a working-class white man, a gay man, and a black man. We are used to being asked to sympathize with characters like Steve, because, as we know, pop culture teaches us that the default human being is straight, white, male, and bourgeois, and anything else is a deviation from the norm.

And at first, Steve is not hard to sympathize with. He is the first person in the room to say "Look, isn't this really about race?", and when he does that, the audience thinks "Finally!" Clearly, the conversation we have been witnessing is all about race and class, but no one wants to admit that. (Some of the characters, hilariously, are blinded by their own political correctness. Steve's wife Lindsey is shocked, shocked, that anyone would even think this was about race.) Wasn't it good of Steve to get that out in the open!

But it soon becomes clear that, while Steve was right that there are racial tensions underlying the conversation, it was incredibly stupid of him to mention them. Because, once he brings them out into the open, the gloves come off, and Act II culminates in an exchange of offensive racist jokes. And the more Steve talks, the more he keeps putting his foot in his mouth. He's the first character to tell a racist joke, which manages to offend the women and the gay man in addition to the black couple. Obviously, Norris does not intend for us to sympathize with Steve's point of view -- this, despite the fact that Norris himself is a straight, white, middle-class man. I'm not sure who we are supposed to sympathize with, but it's not Steve.

After the exchange of racist jokes, Steve puffs himself up, in all of his privilege, and basically says that it's impossible for him to get offended by such jokes, because he is a straight white man. In fact, Steve says, what really offends him are those assholes who drive around in their S.U.V.s with yellow ribbon magnets saying "Support the Troops," when what they really mean is "Support George Bush's phony war and the right-wing Republican agenda"...

And the San Francisco audience applauded. Applauded.

Despite the fact that by this point, Steve has shown himself to be an idiot. Despite the fact that Bush has been out of office for two years. (Indeed, if this scene takes place in 2009, in the happy early days of the Obama administration, Steve's continued obsession with the Iraq War just adds to the impression that he is an idiot.) But somehow, any time a character says something "liberal" onstage -- even if the playwright is trying to critique that attitude -- a San Franciscan feels compelled to applaud. Never play a game of "more liberal than thou," with a San Franciscan, for you will surely lose. This is what I mean when I say that the smugness of this city can be a wonder to behold.

Of course, Norris immediately has the black character, Kevin, take Steve to task for his statement -- asking him why he considers people "assholes" if they have a Support the Troops magnet, and revealing that his own car has three such magnets, for the three members of his family who are serving in Iraq.

There was a smattering of applause after Kevin's response -- from me and people like me who were uncomfortable with all the applause that Steve got -- but it was far more subdued. I'd like to think that the people who applauded Steve felt chagrined, but did they really? And I also wish that the actor who played Kevin had held the moment a beat longer, encouraged more applause, made it even more uncomfortable. It was the most interesting moment of an interesting and provocative play. It was a moment that, with a little more encouragement, might have started a riot in the theater.

Image: Act II of Clybourne Park at ACT. Left to right: Emily Kitchens as Lindsey, Richard Thieriot as Steve, Manoel Felciano as Tom, Gregory Wallace as Kevin, and Omozé Idehenre as Lena.


pjwv said...

Although I know what you mean about the automatic, unthinking reactions of SF audiences, I'm not sure the example you give is really the best one -- the war in Iraq did not end with the Bush presidency (which lied us into the war); it is, in fact, still going on, still costing us lives and money and international prestige (not to mention what it's been doing to the people in Iraq) -- so why is a character stupid for objecting to it, and why is the audience wrong for expressing its anti-war sentiments?

Marissa said...

I figured I might get some blow-back to my comments about the Iraq war. After all, it's not like I agree with the war, either. But at the same time, I also don't feel the need to applaud whenever a character in a play makes an anti-Iraq-war statement -- especially when that character has also been depicted as unsympathetic or wrongheaded in other ways. It doesn't strike me as especially brave for a playwright to speak out against the Iraq war, and therefore I don't feel the need for cascades of applause. When the audience applauds such a statement, I always get the feeling that they are doing it to prove to their neighbors in the theater how liberal they are. Or that they think their applause really MEANS something -- that by applauding, they are registering a courageous protest that will hasten the end of the war -- when really it will do nothing of the sort.

Also, as I tried to say in my post, by this point in "Clybourne Park," it is clear that the character of Steve is not meant to be taken seriously -- he is a satire of a certain kind of unthinking white liberal. And then the San Francisco audience proves themselves to be unthinking white liberals (just like Steve) by reflexively applauding his anti-war statement -- rather than realizing that Bruce Norris intends for us to critique Steve's attitude and reevaluate our own attitudes too.

It is still possible to disagree with the Iraq war but believe that Steve's anger is misplaced -- instead of railing against the "assholes with their Support the Troops magnets," he'd do much better to be angry at George Bush and his cronies, who, as you say, lied us into this war. Bruce Norris is trying to critique the scorn and hatred that many liberal Americans feel for middle-American Republican voters -- because this scorn and hatred makes it ever less likely that Republicans and Democrats will be able to get along. Again, I think it's possible to disagree with the Iraq War and yet refrain from calling your neighbor an "asshole" if he happens to support it.

pjwv said...

Thanks for the clarification; I see the point you're making.

Dr.J said...

I must be missing something, did you say Chuck Norris?

Valerie W said...

Marissa - finally reading your post, after you pointed it out on parabasis. Thinking about SF and our knee jerk reactions to all things military - ROTC in public schools, for example. And feeling more and more that Clybourne Park for many was yet another chance to smugly pat ourselves on the back because we're 'right'.