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In Clybourne Park, President Obama Would Be an Impossibility

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One might expect that a play that had won all the big prizes -- the Pulitzer, the UK's Olivier, and now the Tony award for best play -- would have some relation to reality, would reflect some home truth.

Not so Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, which purports to amend and extend on Lorraine Hansberry's ground-breaking drama of the 1950s, A Raisin in the Sun, yet whiffs on its ambition (or pretension) by climaxing in a joke-fest -- more specifically, a racist joke-fest, each "joke" more offensive than the previous one.

What might have been illuminating drama settles for farce -- farce that both goes too far yet falls way short.

Because, to extend the joke-making: In the universe of Clybourne Park, the biggest joke of all -- one that none of the caricatured characters could see coming and thus would be the ultimate knee-slapper -- is that, no joke, a black man today occupies the pinnacle of American life, the White House. And he got there by punching all the tickets of the American dream: getting an education and a professional law degree, climbing the greasy pole of politics, bringing with him a solid marriage and family. And, possibly the toughest task of all, given the racism on view in this play and certainly in play in real life for much of our history, Mr. Obama had to figure out his identify as a black man in a shifting, often treacherous sociology.

What a shame, this disappointment of a play, because in outline it is artful and promising, which is why I hustled to the theater in such anticipation.

Act One is set in 1959 and depicts the dynamics of the neighborhood association committee that will approach Hansberry's black family, the Youngers, to try to dissuade them from moving into the house they just purchased in the fictional Chicago neighborhood of Clybourne Park. Act Two is set fifty years later, in 2009: With the neighborhood long gone black, a white couple now seeks to move back in, with plans of gentrification dancing in their heads, but first they must deal with the owner, a descendant of the Youngers. An excellent framework, I thought, by which to take the core problem bedeviling America since our inception -- race relations -- and examine its dynamics within the lifetime of the audience sitting in the theater.

But thirty minutes in, great expectations were deflated. Signaling the playwright's disinterest in nuance, every one of the white characters is clueless on the issue of race, including, most disappointingly, the pastor in Act One who might be expected to defend on theological grounds the incoming black family by reminding all present of the perfect equality of all God's children. Rather than a test of conscience, the drama is one of dueling egos, with dialogue that quickly becomes monotonous ("Let me speak" and "Don't interrupt me"). By Act Two the play completely derails with the present-day characters, if possible even more clueless, teeing up their elaborate racist jokes, with the final pièce de résistance not only racist but, involving the hateful c-word, misogynist too. Totally beyond the ken of the cartoons onstage is the historic fact that a black American was elected president just the year before.

But Norris, like many American playwrights today, instead of serious engagement goes for shock and "edge" (see here, here, and here) and so apparently do critics (here and here) and prize committees.

Moreover, the play's ham-handed treatment of race falls flat in the presence of the more subtle forms of racism we see in Obama's "post-racial" America. Exhibit A is the right wing's visceral contempt for Mr. Obama and his legitimacy in office, cannily expressed in code (and no joke) as a campaign to "take back the country." Of course this is not to overlook the more overt racism also occurring (i.e., the conservative super PAC that planned to target Mr. Obama as a "metrosexual black Abe Lincoln").

Perhaps I'm too invested in America's civil rights struggle to see Norris' humor, given my career in the field in the '70s and '80s. (The only joke I recall was what served as our motto: "Remember, thinking is hard, but prejudice is a pleasure.") But even as recently as the '70s and '80s, none of us at the barricades could ever have imagined a New Day dawning when a minority American would be elected president. We understood we could invoke the law only insofar as it dealt with behavior in the workplace, not with the heart in the voting booth.

Imagine it again: Not just a few but a majority of those voting in 2008 were enlightened hearts and they made electoral history. But not one of them is onstage in Clybourne Park. How then is this play, as The New York Times' theater critic claims, "ferociously smart"?

Here it is instructive to consider the concept of theater as representation -- of a people or an era -- as scholar Simon Schama does in a recent essay about Shakespeare. Especially with his history plays, Shakespeare (according to Schama) with his art helped shape and represent the embryonic national identity of the English people. "Although the early repertoire [of English theater] included comedy and blood-and-guts melodrama, what broke through to the mass public was history" -- that is, their own history, represented by vivid characters they could identify and poetic language. "If his history plays fed off a need for national chronicle... they also brought that new sense of shared historical destiny to the public."

In our turbulent post-9/11 world, when America's decline has become an accepted trope, we need dramas, "national chronicles," that represent a pushback from the conscientious -- those who can vote for a black president, who bridge civic divides, who do the hard work of democracy -- as well as those less conscientious who don't or won't. Then, seeing the fullness of the American people represented, we might be inspired to reverse our decline.

At present Norris doesn't show that kind of courage. Frank Rich, the former Times theater critic, in an essay titled "Post-Racial Farce" aptly characterizes Norris as a misanthrope -- an "equal-opportunity misanthrope" -- and notes his "dark vision." Interviewed after Mr. Obama's victory, Norris told Rich, "Even though I was a supporter... I listened to his speech of hope and change, and I thought, 'Good luck.'" Rich might have noted that these postures -- misanthropy, hopelessness, the shrug of indifference at the fools who give a damn -- are all standard Modernist tenets.

Which brings to mind that titan of drama, Anton Chekhov. A tragedian and a pre-Modernist, Chekhov still could study reality and summon this hopeful thought: "If you wish to become an optimist and understand life, stop believing what people say and write, observe and discover for yourself."

Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is author of the forthcoming volume, "Two Plays of Life and Death," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal." Also a commentator, she authored the book, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character."