Race is a complicated issue in America -- often unfairly reduced to PC dictates from the left or rabid anger from the right. A candid exploration of America's racial history -- and progress -- is ongoing. Obama's election as the first African American president made millions proud, but the discussion -- and the discomfort -- continue.
One of the more provocative forums of engagement is theater. In recent memory, two Broadway plays have confronted the country's racial legacy and current reality: David Mamet's smart and sophisticated Race and Bruce Norris' thoughtful Tony-nominated Clybourne Park, now at the Walter Kerr.
Mamet sets his story in an affluent law firm asked to defend a white man accused of raping a black woman. The issue of guilt or innocence is clouded by race, as is the behavior of staff attorneys. Race, justice and law are fiercely debated by black and white lawyers -- and to Mamet's credit, never predictably or disingenuously. Race nailed prejudice and fear on both sides of the divide.
Conversely, Clybourne Park posits a typical domestic setting. Act one opens in 1959, a black family is buying a home in a white neighborhood. The white family is asked by neighbors to renege on the deal. They worry that "one by one," residents will flee and property values plummet.
By act two, set in 2009, the neighborhood has been solidly black for decades. Now, a young white couple is buying the same house. It's in a sorry state, but the neighborhood, close to downtown, is slowly gentrifying. It could be any city in the U.S. where neighborhoods are in flux. The twist: the black middle-class neighbors are horrified by the architectural changes the white buyers propose.
The question is whether it's really a disagreement about "taste," or the larger issue of racial integration. As each side tiptoes around the obvious, anger, resentment and exasperation erupt. Rude, offensive jokes are told about blacks and whites. The audience laughs; but the jokes aren't funny. They are verbal assaults fired across the racial bow. As Norris makes clear, everyone is defensive, making real communication impossible.
We've come a long way from enforced segregation, but as Clybourne Park ruefully notes, we have yet to realize Martin Luther King's dream of a color-blind society. To underscore that point, the actors play different roles. For example, Crystal A. Dickinson plays a domestic in 1959; in 2009, she portrays the niece of the black woman who bought the house 50 years ago. Now, she confronts the same discomfort experienced decades earlier by whites.
In turn, the white woman who sells the house (Christina Kirk) in act one, plays a real-estate lawyer in act two. Her father opposed selling to blacks in the Fifties; now she is defending the right of whites to buy the house anew. The role reversal is a theatrical gimmick that highlights a half-century of social and economic change.
One of the play's strengths, performed by a solid ensemble, is that it skewers the pretensions, stereotypes and feigned niceties of blacks and whites alike. Inspired by Raisin in the Sun, Clybourne Park raises important and divisive issues. But what many may find disquieting, there is no feel-good ending, no pat summation. Just like real life.