Clybourne Park, at its most basic level, is the story of a house. Bruce Norris’ play, which closed out PURE Theatre’s 10th season and will have an extended run during Piccolo Spoleto, charts the changes that occur in a neighborhood over 50 years, with Act 1 set in 1959 and Act II set in 2009. In Act 1, we meet a middle-aged couple in a prosperous, white suburban neighborhood who are selling their house to a black family (incidentally, this family is the Youngers, the protagonists of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun). The couple, Russ and Bev, are still reeling from the death of their adult son, and this is presumably a large part of why they’ve decided to move. An angry neighbor, who does not want a black family living in the neighborhood, visits to try to convince Russ and Bev to back out of the sale.
Act II takes place in 2009 in the same neighborhood. The community is undergoing gentrification, and an affluent white couple is meeting with black representatives of the neighborhood association to hash out some legal issues. The white couple wants to bulldoze the house and build a new, larger one, while the black couple wants to make sure that the historical significance of the community is maintained.
This brief synopsis, however, does little to explain how relevant, timely, and powerful this Pulitzer Prize-winning play really is. Through the course of what are two very small stories, the characters attack issues of race, compassion, equality, and the failures of political correctness. We were so impressed by PURE’s production that we wanted to dig a little deeper. Director Rodney Lee Rogers gave us an inside look at what went into producing Clybourne Park.
City Paper: Could you tell me about your first impressions of his play? What attracted you to it?
Rodney Lee Rogers: Originally, May Adales was going to come down from New York to direct the piece, but she was called last-second to do a show in Singapore and I was handed the slot. When I’m not directing or acting in a piece I don’t like to read the play before I see the production. That may sound odd, being a playwright, but I really like to be surprised. So I only read the script about a week before we started rehearsal. That being said, I was really amazed by the language and how [playwright Bruce] Norris was able to pull off very poetic speech that also sounds so incredibly realistic. When you read it, it really is like one voice speaking, and yet it comes at you from so many different directions.
CP: I was really struck by how real and recognizable these characters are, especially the contemporary ones in the second act. There were times I recognized lines as things I’d said or thought, practically verbatim. What was it like working with these characters so intimately?
RLR: It’s like you said — you recognize your own thoughts in all the characters. That’s the key to the story, I feel. At its heart, this is a play about separatism. It highlights the ways we long to see ourselves in others and the security and safety that comes from that. The common desire in all the characters is to simply find familiarity and security for their families. This is, of course, the obstacle, because all the characters are so different.
CP: The second act is easy for audiences to relate to, but the first act is no less powerful. What do you think makes this 1950s story so strong? What do you take away from this act?
RLR: I think the first act is so solidly grounded in the loss of a child — actually two children — and this is what gives the act its depth. It also provides the perfect interpersonal conflict, because though each character can relate to the loss of a child, each one would go about protecting themselves and their family from such a loss in much different ways due to their own upbringing, culture, and living conditions.
CP: This play is on a larger scale than most of PURE’s previous productions. What was it like working with such a large cast and set?
RLR: It created a few challenges with where to put everyone on the stage, but the cast has been so professional and hardworking that it really didn’t create many problems. Good casting is 90 percent of directing, and that was certainly the case with the cast Sharon [Graci, PURE’s founder and artistic director] put together. I feel the director’s job is to be the eyes of the story. It’s really about guiding [your cast] in certain directions and supporting the choices the actors are already making that are spot-on. The set is much bigger than what we are generally used to and requires modification every night to transition between acts. It’s so gorgeous though, and so cleverly designed by Alan Lyndrop. That’s been so awesome, having a designer of his caliber working with us.
CP: Has working on Clybourne Park changed any ideas you had about issues like race, equality, or gentrification?
RLR: It’s certainly shown me some ideas and ways of communicating that I thought were universal, that actually aren’t. People’s perspectives are oftentimes much different than you perceive.
CP: What about how the play relates to what’s happening here in Charleston? Did it make you think differently about local neighborhoods that are being gentrified, like Hampton Park or the West Side?
RLR: Sharon and I rent a house with our children on King Street, so we see it firsthand. I’m actually amazed at how similar the situation is. I’m sure it’s like that throughout the country wherever these conditions exist.
For the most part what I see is like the play: generally well-intentioned people who are trying to better their lives. I think a lot of the problems come from the suburban experience. A great deal of the so-called middle class grew up in the suburbs, not in neighborhoods. I make this distinction because a neighborhood has its own culture and codes that come from a group of people living together, generally from a joint heritage or religion. The suburbs have always to me been much more about the house.
So when a family with this suburban mentality moves into a true neighborhood, they’re thinking about the house, not how they’re going to blend into the neighborhood. This is bound to cause friction with the people who already live there and who will, justifiably, feel threatened by change. For me, that’s what is really at the heart of this play — this fear of change and loss. How we separate and build our fences to protect our families from the inevitable.