I returned recently to Clybourne Park, the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play by Bruce Norris that ends its limited run on Broadway this weekend. When I first saw the play off-Broadway in early 2010, I left the theater excited by the way Norris used the story and characters from Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun as a springboard to theatricalize the changing neighborhood and how people talk about race.
A few weeks later, however, the concept sunk in, and I was left with a different reaction: I was moved. The more I thought about the play, the more beautiful it was. When someone recounted the ending to me a year later, I started crying.
My emotional response is not a widely expressed reaction to Clybourne Park. Most reviews and articles emphasize the topic of race, including "Post-Racial Farce", a New York Magazine piece by Frank Rich available outside the theater and given out at the performance I attended. Perhaps because I first saw Clybourne Park before anything had been written about it, I never considered the play to be just about race. To me, it is also about people -- family, neighbors, community members -- whose relationships can be at the root of these ideological issues.
To discuss this further, I must reveal the end of the play, so if you have not seen Clybourne Park and don't want to be spoiled, you should stop reading here.
In the final moments of the play, the audience travels back in time to when, as the character Bev says, "Things are about to change." Bev and Russ's son, Kenneth, a Korean War veteran, is preparing to commit suicide in their home, which happened before the play began. Throughout Clybourne Park, characters engage in a constant barrage of conversation, which makes the relative stillness in this scene so striking. Kenneth seems to exist outside the language of the play, never speaking more than six words at a time, and mostly in one or two word phrases.
Not only does Kenneth's suicide lead Bev and Russ to move to a new neighborhood in 1959, it is the reason the Youngers, the black family from A Raisin in the Sun and unseen characters in Clybourne Park, can afford to buy the house. It also leads inadvertently, 50 years later, to the argument the Youngers' descendent, Lena, has with the house's new white buyers as the Clybourne Park neighborhood becomes gentrified.
In the penultimate paragraph of The New York Times review after the Broadway opening, critic Ben Brantley called the son's suicide a subplot, noting that "war is the logical extension of the conflicts acted out in a single living room." I don't think the suicide is the subplot, however. It is the catalyst of the plot, and that the audience sees it in the final moment indicates not an "extension" but a focus on the emotional journey each character takes throughout the play.
Without the son's suicide, Clybourne Park would have only hit me on an intellectual level without any emotional weight. I'm glad I returned to see it before it closed because now I can confirm that the play is still, for me, not just about race but about people and their struggles, and how one human act can affect the inhabitants of an entire neighborhood.