We've taken to calling our culture's ongoing struggles with race a discussion in recent years. If it is one, it's taken some curious turns of late. A candidate who called for a national conversation on race in 2008 was elected to the presidency—whereupon, researchers note, in his first two years in office, he uttered the fewest words on the subject of any Democratic president since 1961.
Buried in the avalanche of polls before last November's election was an Associated Press survey concluding that racial prejudice has increased in America since 2008. Forty-eight percent expressed explicit anti-black sentiments in 2008; 51 percent do now. Implicit racial prejudice in the poll jumped from 49 percent to 56 percent.
So, where is this conversation headed? A controversial—and not exactly comforting—answer lies in PlayMakers Repertory Company's pairing of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun with Bruce Norris' acerbic, Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatic comedy Clybourne Park.
The pair don't constitute the smug theatrical victory lap so often witnessed in productions geared toward Black History Month. Thankfully, the raucous conversation that springs up between these plays seems a lot less stage-managed than much of the public discussion about race in recent years.
Clearly, that conversation is no accident. Norris intended Clybourne Park as a direct rejoinder to Hansberry's play—an act of some audacity, given a white playwright proposing a codicil to a work that sparked the black theater movement of the 1960s.
But by exploring parts of Raisin's world which Hansberry didn't, Norris actually expands that work's context and adds a broader range of voices to the conversation. When both are placed side by side, Norris does something even more important: He demonstrates just how arteriosclerotic our channels of communications have become when talking about race.
Under director Raelle Myrick-Hodges, A Raisin in the Sun details the dreams and desperations of the Youngers, a struggling African-American family in a cramped southside Chicago apartment in 1959. Lena (a solid Kathryn Hunter-Williams), the family matriarch, has come into a modest windfall from her late husband's life insurance. But the bequest presents a dilemma: For a family trying to break the grip of poverty, what deliverance can that money buy? And whose dreams can she fund with it?
Lena's daughter, Beneatha (Miriam Hyman), is studying to become a doctor. Her son, Walter Lee (Mikaal Sulaiman), desperately wants to stop driving a limousine and go into business for himself. Lena herself has always wanted a house to call her own.
On Robin Vest's set, Walter Lee lashes out as walls and prospects close about him. Beneatha chafes at the close quarters, and Walter's wife, Ruth (a strong Dee Dee Batteast), squeezes through a makeshift kitchen. For a family out of room, out of patience and running low on hope, something has to give.
Lena decides to use part of the inheritance on a house in the white middle-class neighborhood of Clybourne Park. But in 1959 Chicago, that will be contested, and other plot developments will also threaten that dream and all the others.
It's ironic when we learn just how free the Youngers have been up to that point—in one crucial way at least. In their apartment, they have freely spoken their minds. Beneatha has danced, dreaming of a possible future in Nigeria. Walter Lee, Ruth and Lena have all railed against the strictures of their lives and discussed their work as domestics—Walter Lee as a chauffeur, Lena and Ruth as maids.
So it's a shock to the system, at the start of the Tracy Young-directed Clybourne Park, when Bev (Constance Macy), the lady of the house, exchanges her first lines with Francine (Rasool Jahan), her maid. Suddenly, the vivid, broad and unsparing channels of dialogue in Raisin are gone. Instead, an African-American maid, now on the job, speaks very little of her mind and even less of her heart. We discover this malady isn't limited to them: Bev's husband, Russ (a nuanced Jay O'Berski), refuses to talk with her, or anyone else, about the grief that's crippling him.
It soon emerges that Russ and Bev own the house that the Youngers buy in Raisin. Then we learn from Norris why Russ and Bev are selling the house to the Youngers so cheaply.
Small talk, conspicuous and frustrating, dominates the first act; it takes a lot of it to fill up that much silence in a house. Even more is needed when several neighbors want to get a little close—but not too close—to this wounded couple. We understand when Russ gets fed up with all of it and then acts on that decision.
When Clybourne Park's second act takes place 50 years later, real conversation is, if anything, even harder to come by.
Things have changed. The neighborhood that went African-American from the "white flight" after the Youngers moved in saw drugs and violence creep in during the 1980s. Now it's 2009, gentrification is under way, and a young white couple, Steve (Matt Garner) and Lindsey (Kelsey Didion), want to buy the now-dilapidated house to demolish it and build anew.
They're negotiating with some mostly young, reasonably hip city dwellers—the real estate agent, their lawyer, and Lena and Kevin (Jahan in a second role, and Nilan Johnson), an African-American couple from the neighborhood property owners' association.
But incessant interruptions—calls, texts and laborers—keep derailing their talks. While the others wait, again we see it takes a lot of small talk to fill the dead zone between folks this culturally far apart. That's how trouble starts.
Conversation turns to workplaces and a common acquaintance Kevin and Steve have: the only African-American in the high school Steve went to, who recently told him a joke about a white guy who ends up in the same prison cell with a black guy. Despite Lindsey's desperate best efforts, Steve repeats the joke.
That first domino of race-based humor sets off an avalanche, as parties to a business deal devolve through woeful cultural misreads and curdled good will into an intramural, interracial version of the dozens. Mud goes everywhere as participants vie with one another to tell the most racially offensive joke—to prove they're not offended by it.
The punch lines fly like shrapnel. And as they do, we see how far we haven't come from the 1950s. Both now and then, Norris notes, it's what people already are convinced they know about the other—African-American, white, gay, straight—that eliminates the chance for real conversations across cultural lines.
As the japes go zinging across the room, it's unclear if the protagonists can hear what any of the others are actually saying. For our culture's sake, here's hoping that we in the audience can.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Can we talk?"