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Clybourne Park Explores Other Side of Raisin in the Sun

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A Raisin in the Sun is an American classic.

Set in post-World War II Chicago and based in large part on her family's experience, Lorraine Hansberry's play tells the tale of the Youngers, an African-American family set on realizing their version of the American Dream and buying a house.

But, as they learn, even after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the enforcement of racially restrictive covenants unconstitutional in the 1948 case of Shelley v. Kraemer, the path to homeownership was not a straight line.

After the purchase, the family receives a visit from Karl Linder, a nervous man who presents himself as the representative of a homeownership association, and, in essence, offers the family more money than they've paid not to move into the community, where they would be the first black neighbors.

Lindner's visit to the Youngers is the backdrop for Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, now playing at the Steppenwolf. The play, which earned this year's Pulitzer Prize for drama, shows the other side of the home purchase in 1959, and then revisits the scene with the same actors a half century later.

In the first act, Lindner enters the house of Bev and Russ, a couple seeking to sell and leave the bad memories caused by the suicide of their son several years earlier.

Lindner is relentless in pushing Russ to reconsider his purchase because of the negative consequences the move will have for the neighborhood and his property values. In an ironic twist, he has a deaf wife, showing a tolerance for people with disabilities, although Norris explained that artistic choice in an interview by asking who would marry Lindner if he could hear him.

For her part, Bev tries to vanquish her pain by bustling along with excessive good cheer and by making directive comments. Although unappealing at first, she does have moments during the confrontation with Lindner where her acceptance of the Younger family's rights to live where they choose are a proverbial "save the cat" moment.

Meanwhile, Francine, the family's long-serving and eager-to-leave maid, finds her polite and deferent veneer punctured at the end of a lengthy and explosive conflict in which her husband Albert tries to intervene physically.

The dialogue is quick and snappy, with Norris capturing certain details like Bev's lack of knowledge about how many children Francine has.

The second act brings us closer to the present, only the racial tables are turned. Now a white couple wants to move into the neighborhood, and a black couple, representing the community is asking not to make physical alterations to the building that they feel would destroy the architectural integrity

This time, the white husband of the purchasing couple takes offense at what he believes to be the racially motivated request. This is soon followed by a series of race and gender jokes that takes the whole interaction down into a predictable and presumably painful conclusion.

Norris shows how the echoes of the past live on in the house, the community and the nation, as the second act reveals part of the purpose behind many of his choices in the first half. Lindner's daughter is the lawyer for white couple, for example, and we learn that Karl and Betty moved to Rosemont. Lena, the advocate for architectural integrity, reveals that her great aunt, presumably Ruth Younger, lived in the home.

In a similar vein, lines and even the physical conflict are repeated between black and white, showing the ways in which race continues to bedevil us, even as Barack Obama, based in the same South Side that the Youngers wanted to leave, now holds the nation's highest office.

Norris said that he was aiming for a white, rather than general, audience, and he succeeds in raising these issues.

Unfortunately, the work's power is diluted by the characters' generally unappealing nature -- I found myself drawn to perhaps two of the actors in each act -- and the stiff way in which they carried themselves.

At no point was I unaware that I was watching a play.

Still, one standard by which a work of art can fairly be evaluated is by the depth of discussion and thought it provokes. Clybourne Park does not explode, as the raisin in the Langston Hughes poem Hansberry alluded to in her work. But it does at least succeed in showing the many layers that collide in the often visceral intersection between personal experience, private property and the lofty promises of the unfettered pursuit of happiness in our nation's founding documents.