M.G. Perez, senior reporter
Sometimes life is black and white. It isn’t fair.
Those were harsh realities in the 1970s Houston, Texas suburb where Bruce Norris grew up. Norris is playwright of the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning “Clybourne Park” opening Feb. 14, for a three-week run at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center. The show is produced by the Trinity Theatre Company, launching its eighth season as one of San Diego’s emerging artistic forces. “Clybourne Park” is inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” about race and the American dream. Norris, who was a white, middle-class, seventh-grade student at the time, remembers his social studies teacher showing the Sidney Poitier film version. He says, “We were so closeted and unaware of our privilege, that this social studies teacher, I think, was trying to elbow us into some consciousness about what sort of world we were actually living in.” The film made such an impact that as an aspiring young actor, he believed he would someday play the role of Karl Lindner, who represents the racism of white America before the civil rights movement. That never happened. Instead, Norris built a career as a writer and eventually included the same character from Hansberry’s story, and a few others, in his play. The result bookends “A Raisin in the Sun” and launches new storylines and characters. The first act is set in the exclusively white 1959 Chicago neighborhood when a black couple buys a house and moves in. Then, Act 2 takes place in the same house 50 years later when a white couple initiates a move for gentrification in the now-dilapidated area. Norris says, “There’s a kind of mystery built into the play wondering why this family is leaving. If you pry further and further into a story, well, there’s a tragedy at the core of a momentous event like moving out of a house. I didn’t know what that was until I started writing the play.”
“Clybourne Park” also delivers comedy and stinging laughs often rooted in the underbelly of racism and bigotry. Director Kandace Crystal jumped at the opportunity to helm the Trinity Theatre production. “This is a show that has a voice of color. As a director, I love to hold a mirror up to an audience. I don’t live up to those angry black woman stereotypes,” she says. Crystal auditioned every person who wanted to be seen for the roles, no matter their ethnicity. Ultimately, she cast Caucasian and African American actors, who deliver authentic performances true to the text. The play is intentionally layered by the playwright to address issues of race, class, gender and indirectly sexual orientation and disability. All the actors play double roles including Emily Candia, who is Betsy in the first act set in 1959. Betsy is the deaf, pregnant wife of the antagonist and racist Karl Lindner, who Norris once thought he might play onstage. He tells us he created Betsy because he believed only a deaf woman would put up with that kind of husband. Candia uses the character to bring awareness and strength by communicating in sign language and her well-acted, effectively executed, limited-speaking interpretation to the role. In Act 2, Norris outs one of the male characters as gay, played by Ryan Cannan, through a clever use of a very offensive joke. It brings a laugh and makes a statement about the progress of the gay community at the time of the 2009 setting.
During a recent rehearsal, the entire cast delivered potent performances without the benefit of a set, lights, or costumes — a clear indication of what is to come in the next three weeks onstage and in the minds of both the actors and audience members who experience the power of this much respected and honored play. The cast also includes seasoned performers Paul Uhler (Russ/Dan), Melissa Malloy (Bev/Kathy), Robert Coe (Karl/Steve), Daniel Solomon (Albert/Kevin), and newcomer Ashley Graham (Francine/Lena), who includes on her resume the iconic role of Laurey in the musical “Oklahoma!” as a black actress in an otherwise white cast, performed at the Lawton Community Theater in Lawton, Oklahoma.
“Clybourne Park” director points out this play does not have a happy ending: “Who needs a happy ending? Let’s take this ‘mirror’ and see how we can do better in our own community,” quips Crystal.
Recommended for mature audiences; contains strong language and adult situations.
Tenth Avenue Arts Center
930 10th Ave. San Diego, CA 92101
Feb. 14 through March 8, 2020.
Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. Sundays at 2 p.m.
Opening Night Valentine’s Day discount BOGO tickets using the code: 2Love
Feb. 14, 2020 performance only
M.G. Perez is founder of the San Diego Theatre Connection and creator of the Community OMG blog www.communityomg.tumblr.com. Follow on social media on Facebook and Instagram @sdtheatreconnection and on Twitter @TheSDTC.
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