“Clybourne Park” – on Broadway

{spoilers galore!} Clybourne Park is a play that dialogues with Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun, the first play produced on Broadway that was written by an African-American female. Clybourne’s two acts sandwich Hansberry’s drama between two pieces of plain white bread, so in theory one could stage Raisin at the intermission of Clybourne and thus tell a “complete” story as the house which the black Younger family of Raisin has purchased becomes the setting for Clybourne Park. In the first act which takes place in 1959 just before the African-American Youngers have moved in, we meet the white couple who has recently sold their house, the neighborhood association leader Karl Lindner (who is the only white character in Raisin) and his wife, the owners’ pastor and also their black housekeeper and her husband. In the second act, which is set in 2009, we meet a new neighborhood association leader, this time an African-American woman who is a grand-niece to the Younger family, her husband, two lawyers, and of course the white couple who have recently bought the house and are in the process of negotiating the terms of the structure they intend to build once the current house is demolished.

Being mostly in agreement with Theodore Allen’s thesis that the “white race” is a “ruling class social control formation” (as opposed to just a social construct) it’s hard not to cringe while typing the words “white” and “black” so carelessly. But the play Clybourne Park forces the audience into a false binary of white vs. black and eschews a more nuanced and realistic portrait of how race works in America, the porousness of its borders, the diversity of socio-economic strata within each race, the politics of class and its contradiction and the rich confusion of racial polarities. As Clybourne Park‘s main addition to the Raisin plot includes a Korean-War veteran (the “white” couple’s son) who committed a war crime and who returns to hang himself in the house (the “key” to describing why the house was unwanted by another “white” family and sold to the black Youngers) the play’s ossified vision of race also bleeds into a dismal treatise on human nature which seems to portray warfare and violence as innate categories or hard-wired and immutable code. Racism is but a local manifestation of our violent war-mongering nature rather than a potential force engendered and strongly conditioned by history and the needs of power.

But first, race– The world that Clybourne Park tacks onto A Raisin in the Sun is that of a mostly homogenous whiteness. Although the banter that begins both acts riffs on foreign countries and capitals (Neopolitan ice cream leads to Naples, Paris, Ulan Bator, Mongolia, Marrakesh, Morroco, Timbuktu, Mali) the diversity in the “white” camp mostly ends there. Karl Lindner’s wife here is of Scandinavian ancestry and Lindner uses this fact in his patronizing lecture to the housekeeper and her husband (who are mostly silent in the first act, while inhabiting an impossibly awkward position that reinforces them as ‘other’) that different people appreciate different things and have different customs–an argument that he feels must lead to the conclusion that the rule of birds-of-a-feather-flock-together must become enforceable law. Lindner’s wife is also deaf, another clue that the play would rather operate on the conflicts of identity rather than the the conflicts between classes.

Linder’s domino theory of neighborhood racial territorialism ends with his sarcastically insinuating that the trickle of one black family becomes a deluge and ends with “the Red Chinese”. The world of the first act is one in which the conflict in the mostly homogenous “white” suburbia of Chicago is between a father distraught over his young son’s suicide and a community of neighbors and religious leaders totally unfit to manage the return of soldiers and their blasted psyches and violent memories. Watching Russ (the father and recent seller of the house) rage against the myopia and subtly racist narcissism of his neighbors is the motor that drives the first act and it provides several shocking moments in which we have the joy to witness a consciousness finally unmoored from middle-class morality allow itself the pleasure of cursing at the polite company. “Go fuck yourself” is the insult of choice, which Russ even mockingly directs to Lindner’s deaf wife who responds with a smile and a wave. Russ refuses to stop the sale of his house to the Raisin family and thus consigns these petty neighbors and their parochial problems to a ruined future of depressed real-estate values and white flight. The American Dream, deferred.

But is the history of changing neighborhoods so contingent? The history of black Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century is the story of a rise in population from 1900 to 1934 of 30,000 to 236,000. Although a historic rise, the city’s total population over the same time period saw another roughly 1.7 million added to the population of 1.7 million in 1900 (77% of whom at the time were foreign-born) for a total population of 3.3 million in 1930, a number that remained stagnant through the depression years. And it was the Great Depression that allowed houses in “white” neighborhoods to become affordable to the black population, which at that time was severely ghettoized in the “Black Belt”, only 30 blocks long and 7 blocks wide. The extreme segregation of Chicago was exacerbated as the already segregated population began its explosive growth and eventual geographic spread into Irish neighborhoods, a process of which culminated in the race riot of 1919 in the so called Red Summer that saw pogroms break out across the United States.

By the time Lorraine Hansberry’s father decided he would like to move into a historically white neighborhood in the 1930s, many neighborhoods had already written up racist covenants that explicitly barred “Negros” from owning or occupying property, Negros being defined as “every person having one-eighth part or more of Negro blood , or having any appreciable admixture of Negro blood, and every person who is what is commonly known as a colored person.” (The pdf of an article here describes the legal minutia at hand and its relationships to Raisin.)  Hansberry’s case eventually found its way to the Supreme Court in Hansberry vs. Lee (1940) in which the Supreme Court entirely avoided the issue of race and instead issued its ruling for the plaintiff on the theoretical reason that the covenant was a form of class action that bound the unwilling to the willing; so because Burke (whose wife previously had gone to court to uphold the racist covenant) now wanted to sell his house to Hansberry, the covenant was no longer valid because some of the signers no longer wished it to be binding, not to mention those who never agreed with it in the first place.

The historical process of the Great Migration of African Americans towards the Northern cities and the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression were the forces that engendered and eventually broke the covenants, not the isolated case of a house being on the market and unwanted because it is tainted with the suicide of a troubled war criminal. But it’s worth comparing this vision of a mostly homogenous community of middle-class whites fractured by the incursion of a foreign war into their living room with the diversity and complexity of African-American experience portrayed in Lorraine Hanberry’s play. Raisin revolves around the question of what to do with a $10,000 insurance check the family receives after the death of Lena Younger’s husband. Over the course of the drama the family argues the enduring question of “African or American?” Lena’s son Walter’s get-rich-quick mentality leads him to a dream of opening a liquor store with his friends, while Lena’s daughter Beneatha struggles between the contrasting worlds of her suitors, one of whom is rich, assimilated, but aloof, the other of whom is a Nigerian student passionate about African heritage and liberation. It’s a panoply of diverse strategies and choices for African Americans at mid-century and Karl Lindner’s offer to bribe the family so that they choose not to move into Clybourne Park (a neighborhood and house which Mama chose because it was the only affordable option) only serves to heighten the historical burden the family feels towards their obligation to put communal progress over financial gain. Although narrowly focused on one family in their small apartment in Chicago, the diverse and contradictory range of African-American personalities shatters a certain racist vision of black America so commonly reinforced by this country’s artistic output. (One may also add that one of the successes of The Wire, although in need of its fair share of criticism, is the breadth of the Baltimore black community that is portrayed.)

The second act of Clybourne Park, however, once again concentrates the characters in a narrow socio-economic circle. The African-American couple who are trying to defend the community from gentrification, hideous architecture and the loss of their “historically” black neighborhood to yuppies are presented as mostly self-satisfied and worldly; they mention how they have visited Prague and also Switzerland, where they skied. Of this couple, Lena in particular has a chip on her shoulder the size of Kansas and eventually the husband of the white couple moving in, Steve (played by the actor who was Karl Lindner in the first act), convinces himself that Lena is a (black) racist. Lena claims she merely thinks the new occupants have no architectural taste, not to mention the fact that if most of the current residents are home-owners, the African-American community stands to profit with an increased demand for the neighborhood. While the lawyers are mostly oblivious and see the disagreements in legal terminology (the white couple’s lawyer is revealed to be Karl Lindner’s daughter and is particularly vapid), eventually the meeting devolves into a free-for-all of racist jokes, insults and near-violence. A workman Dan (played by the same actor who played the father Russ in the first act) provides the only glimpse of working class life in the second act. He is also mostly oblivious, played for laughs, but unearths skeletons in the closet that link the two acts together.

Although this ruthless skewering of contemporary bourgeois narcissism in the second act is enjoyable enough, the futility of this vision (as it is completely ignores giving voice to a more diverse range of the population and fulfills an artificial dramaturgical need to flip-flop the plot and put the blacks in a position of power) leaves the audience with a synthetically false thesis about racial relations. Directly opposed to the methods of Hansberry’s Raisin, which strategically presents a diverse vision of a historically stereotyped people, Clybourne Park presents a stereotyped vision of historically diverse communities.

The recourse to the plot of the Korean War and the atrocities and shame of war link this idea of state violence with the over-arching theme of racial territorialism.  In the second act we see a near-violent confrontation of black vs. white and the ghosts of warfare are connected here in an insidious way. But by an historical accident perhaps, in choosing the Korean War the historical specificity of this conflict contradicts any move towards reinforcing the play’s ahistorical categories of violence and race. For in this conflict, which took the form of a civil-cum-proxy war, the specific circumstance of arbitrarily dividing Korea between the Soviet Union and the United States after the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, although “provisional”, inevitably led to a clash between peoples not because of any racial differences, but because of the needs and abilities of powers such as the USSR, the US and China to take advantage of class divisions in Korea in order to sustain a regional hegemony. Korean vs. Korean…

Clyborne Park  leads its audience to the ersatz vision of a world sharply divided by race in such a way that we seemed doomed to a future of incessant violence we are incapable of mediating. In so doing it neglects the more difficult and rewarding explanation that violence itself is to an overwhelming extent mediated by the needs of power and (dare I say it?) capitalism. How else to describe the US-enabled or condoned Korean-on-Korean slaughter of the Bodo League Massacre or Jeju Uprising in which thousands of suspected Communists or Leftists were executed, or even the initial advance of the communist army from the North into the South in its drive to take the entire country?

The moment the views of our own “Race” and “racism” are seen to have much more to do with centuries of struggle, oppression, hypocrisy and power contests rather than any supposedly “innate” structures we are born with, the closer we will be to pecking away at this fundamental obstacle to uniting the underprivileged, which is the only realistic path towards curtailing inequality. In the meantime, plays like Clybourne Park, as necessarily acerbic as they may be only serve to muddy the waters. “Steve” who in the second act is the frustrated white gentrifying owner of the Clybourne Park property mentions in a heated argument that “The history of America is the history of private property… Read de Tocqueville.” Indeed.

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3 Responses to “Clybourne Park” – on Broadway

  1. Pingback: a bit more on “Clybourne Park” | Guava Purée

  2. Pingback: on Badiou’s “The Racism of Intellectuals” | Guava Purée

  3. Pingback: Martha’s Vineyard | Guava Purée

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