I was recently in Chicago for an Association of Arts Administration Educators Board meeting. While there I was lucky to score the last ticket for a performance of Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, Clybourne Park, at Steppenwolf Theatre. Not being a theater critic, I won’t try to review the play itself. The production does represent a serious commitment by a significant regional theatre company to be relevant to the city in which it exists. Clybourne Park is a study of race in the US, arguably the most toxic topic available for discourse here. It begins with the story of Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, looks at it from the perspective of the white couple that sold the house to the Younger family and then, in Act II, envisions an upwardly mobile white couple buying it (to be demolished, making way for a grander house) after 50 years of neighborhood decay. The house thus has its own “Act II”, becoming part of the gentrification process going on across the country in neighborhoods close to urban centers.
The play examines, fairly directly, our inability to talk about race in U.S. While there is little that is subtle about its approach to the topic, it has the advantage being straightforward. (My primary content quibble would be that it does little to force white audiences to understand systemic, as opposed to individual, racism, but that is not really the topic of this post.) The work is part of Steppenwolf’s Dispatches from the Homefront season. Martha Lavey, Steppenwolf’s Artistic Director, describes the plays in the series as missives “from a zone in conflict.” They are shaping a season around addressing issues of importance to the people they want to reach. Interestingly, the playwright is both surprised and a bit abashed by the play’s success. (It has won an Olivier for Best New Play in London’s West End and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in the U.S.) He is quoted in the program as saying, “I have an attitude that if someone likes what I do then that means by definition it is not good. If I do my job correctly I should outrage people and have rotten vegetables thrown at me; that would be e on,y proof that I had done something successfully. . . . [W]hen people like something that I’ve done and they pay for it, it’s very confusing to me.” [Steppenwolfe Theatre’s Claybourne Park program, 2011-2012 Season]
Mr. Norris’s view that seriousness of purpose must of necessity be unpopular or anti-commercial might need a separate post. Suffice to say here there that the success of this work does demonstrate that (at least some) real people hunger for substance.
Theatre is particularly valuable as a mechanism for examining, at a somewhat safe distance, difficult issues. Seeing our foibles (and those of others) presented on stage allows us to consider them one step removed from the heat of any moment in which we experience them directly. Clybourne Park is a poster child for this truth.
The other thing that was noteworthy about the afternoon (from my point of view) was that the performance was followed by a moderated discussion of the play that was almost totally about the issues as opposed to the art. The moderator was fairly well equipped to lead the discussion and the audience was making appropriate connections among ideas and issues raised in the play. Save for my caveat above about the lack of attention to systemic or institutional racism, it was a valuable exercise. My recommendation for expansion would be to capture names and contact info of people interested in continuing the discussion and providing a mechanism for them to do so. That might have marketing value to Steppenwolf; it could, if done properly, certainly have value to participants. The essential applicable truth of community engagement work here is that the arts experience is just one part of a whole. The energy generated through the art should be the beginning of something rather than an end in itself.
Image from Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s website.