Pulitzer-winning ‘Clybourne Park’ Returns to Woolly Mammoth With Story of Race

BY Jeffrey Brown  August 5, 2011 at 3:21 PM EDT

The play “Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris is a story of race and class in one Chicago neighborhood, in fact in one Chicago house, over a span of 50 years.

It won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for drama and is now making a return engagement to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C. Earlier this week, I spoke to Howard Shalwitz, artistic director and co-founder of Woolly Mammoth, about Norris’ play and his theater’s production of it.

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. The play “Clybourne Park” is by Bruce Norris. It’s a story of race and class in one Chicago neighborhood, in fact, in one Chicago house. It’s set in Act I in the 1950s, Act II in the 1990s, and it won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for drama. It’s now making a return engagement to the Woolly Mammoth Theatre here in Washington. Howard Shalwitz directs it. He is the co-founder and long-time head of Woolly Mammoth.

HOWARD SHALWITZ: Artistic Director.

JEFFREY BROWN: Artistic Director. Welcome to you.

HOWARD SHALWITZ: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want you to you fill in a little bit of the story here. The playwright has used an interesting device, looking back to an early work, “A Raison in the Sun.”

HOWARD SHALWITZ: Yeah, the play is a very provocative riff on Lorraine Hansberry’s great classic, “A Raison in the Sun,” and I think most people know, who know that play, remember that there is a black family, the Youngers, who live in Chicago, and they inherit some money when their father dies, and they decide to move into a neighborhood called Clybourne Park. The matriarch of the family puts some money down as a down payment, among many other things that happen in the play, a representative of the neighborhood association in Clybourne Park, which is a white neighborhood, comes over to their home and tries to talk them out of moving in, tries to convince them they won’t be comfortable, and in fact offers to buy the property back from them at a higher price. Having failed to do that, Karl Lindner, who is the character from the neighborhood association, arrives in Bruce Norris’ play, “Clybourne Park,” to try to talk the white family out of selling the house to the black family, and that’s basically the action of the first act.

JEFFREY BROWN: This part is the beginning of what became white flight out of what was a white neighborhood in Chicago.

HOWARD SHALWITZ: Yes, and the interesting thing about the play is that it tracks that forward actually 50 years and in a way that a lot of American neighborhoods have evolved. It imagines that after Act I, in fact, the black family did move in, the neighborhood gradually became more of a black neighborhood. And then 50 years later we’re in the same house, it’s now become somewhat dilapidated, and there is a white couple who has now repurchased the home and they are planning to tear down —

JEFFREY BROWN: Gentrification.

HOWARD SHALWITZ: Gentrification. The second act is a meeting between them and a black couple who have long time roots in the neighborhood about the plans for their house, which looks like it’s going to be a McMansion. The play is very clever in the way it looks at some of the complex reversals around race and gentrification over a 50 year period.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have had a deep involvement with this for a long time, but I want to take you back to when you first read it, took a look, what was it that struck you?

HOWARD SHALWITZ: Bruce is one of our great American provocateurs as a playwright, and he’s looked across racial divides in many of his plays. So for us in Washington, given who we are as a city, those are very interesting questions. He wrote the play just before the election of Obama, and that’s when I first read it, and he did some further revisions shortly after the election to reflect the slight change in the environment. What struck me was that we were at a moment then where people were starting to let this word “post-racial” sneak into our lexicon. I think it’s dropped out by now, sadly, but the play really asks quite provocatively, ok, maybe the terms of the conversation have changed, but has the conversation gone away? And it certainly suggests that it hasn’t.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s interesting, because you said that here in Washington, these are issues that are very much among us as they are in many cities, but what about in the theater? The theatre doesn’t often tackle these things.

HOWARD SHALWITZ: I think the theater is often socially conscious, and I think that at Woolly Mammoth, in particular. We moved downtown near the Mall and the Capitol about six years ago. We’re in our 32nd season as a company, but when we moved right into the center of Washington, we in particular became very conscious of our, for lack of a better word, political role. And I think one of our goals as a company now is to use plays as a platform for provocative conversations and to connect with other facets of Washington life where that conversation is already taking place. We are doing post-show discussion with professors and bloggers and journalists, and all of them serving as sort of catalysts for conversation with our audience about our neighborhoods in Washington and how they compare to what we are seeing on stage in “Clybourne Park.”

JEFFREY BROWN: I got to see Clybourne Park on the first go around. It’s a wonderful set, the house itself.

HOWARD SHALWITZ: It’s a house, yeah.

JEFFREY BROWN: So I thought, well, that’s an interesting challenge, how do you put a house on stage. What other challenges were there for you as a director?
HOWARD SHALWITZ: You know, the first act of the play has a little bit of the rosy glow of history because of nostalgia, because we’re looking back 50 years, and the writing is so full-bodied. The white family who is selling the house we learn has lost a son after he came back from the Korean War under dubious circumstances and is still in some ways in mourning. So there’s a lot of emotional weight in the play, and at the same time we know how to look at the first act because it’s easy from the vantage point of 50 years later to say, oh, well, Karl Lindner, despite his arguments — oh, his house value will fall down, the black family won’t be comfortable with the food that’s in the grocery stores — nonetheless, we can look at that as a coded form of racism. But then when you jump to the second act, it’s hard to judge, and I think the challenge for the second act was, first of all it doesn’t have the emotional weight of the first, would it kind of hold up and then how would you balance the forces of those characters. I would say the big surprise for me was that how well the first act keys the audience up to listen to every nuance of the language in the second act, and how successful the second act is in laying a conundrum at the feet of the audience and not giving any easy answers. You had to sort of understand, and it wasn’t immediately apparent until we got in front of audience, how those two acts would function together.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s funny throughout, not always comfortably funny, right? But particularly in that second act where there’s a lot of laughs, and it’s sort of like, oooooh, you know. And you mention property values. That, of course hits everybody, right?

HOWARD SHALWITZ: Yes. It’s also a play about language. It’s not just about what’s right and what’s wrong with respect to race and gentrification. It’s as much about the words we use, the games we play, especially now, to try to be politically correct about it and how those mask maybe some deeper underlying attitudes. I think that’s the genius of the play, and that’s a lot of the comedy. It’s like the audience can see the characters tripping over themselves to try to put the best face on their own personal interests.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is that why you think it’s clicking with people? It’s clear it was a big success. You were able to bring it back. You are doing really well the second time.

HOWARD SHALWITZ: Yeah, we have a great cast. Most of them were nominated for Helen Hayes awards, and as an ensemble they were. So I’m lucky that I had a great group of artists to work with and a brilliant design by Jim Kronzer, as you mentioned, but it’s a play that really cooks on all cylinders in terms of having high entertainment value and ultimately when it’s over giving you something to really, really talk about when you go home. We’re inviting people to stay and talk in the theater, and a lot of them do. But this is not a play that people leave the theater not talking. There is such a buzz in the lobby after the show. And it’s not just the buzz of, oh, did you like it, did you not like? It’s the buzz of, what do you make of that? What does it mean for your life?

JEFFREY BROWN: And what happens to a play like this? Does it get out in the world?

HOWARD SHALWITZ: It’s gotten out already. Woolly’s production was on the heels of its premier in New York at Playwrights Horizons. So those two productions have happen now. It’s been done in San Francisco, a huge hit in London at the Royal Court, transferred to the West End —

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh really, I didn’t know that.

HOWARD SHALWITZ: Won the Olivier Award for outstanding new play in London. That was last year. And I think now that it’s won the Pulitzer, I think there are, I don’t know, I’m guessing about a dozen productions on tap for next season, maybe more. And it will have a very long shelf life. I’m almost sad to say because these issues won’t go away, and I think because of the way it reflects back on a great classic, and with the imprimatur of the Pulitzer, I think it will be an important American play for a long time to come.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The play is “Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris. Howard Shalwitz is the artistic director of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Thank you very much.

HOWARD SHALWITZ: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.