When, in 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr. took the freedom movement northward, its first stop was Chicago, a city where the brutal defense of the segregated status quo rivaled anything one might witness in Selma or Birmingham.
In fact, during a march through Marquette Park, a white enclave on the city's Southwest Side, King and his fellow peaceful protesters were met with rocks, bottles, firecrackers, and death threats, causing King to remark, "I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I've seen here today."
Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play "A Raisin in the Sun" only hints at this reality. It concludes with the African-American Younger family preparing to move from the ghetto to lily-white Clybourne Park, a fictional area based on Chicago's notoriously turbulent Woodlawn neighborhood. The family is changing addresses despite a substantial financial offer from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association to give up their new property.
A relatively subtle act of racism, carried out by the group's mealy-mouthed representative Karl Lindner, certainly would have been followed by more aggressive attempts to hold the racial line. Though what the Youngers might endure after their arrival in Clybourne Park, Hansberry leaves to the knowing imagination.
With his typical artistic bravado, Bruce Norris has taken up the challenge of filling in some of the edges of Hansberry's classic work. His play "Clybourne Park," winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, does so by following Lindner (Jeremy Shamos) back to his still racially homogenous home turf, where he displays a bit more tenacity than Hansberry accorded him. Spurned by the Youngers' rebellious dignity, he makes a last-ditch effort to kill the sale at its source.
Prior to Lindner's onstage arrival, Norris introduces us to the middle class sellers Bev and Russ (Christina Kirk and Frank Wood), initially depicting them as banal Ozzie and Harriet types. But soon enough, their idle chatter begins to touch on a painful family drama that explains what Hansberry never does: why this white couple is selling their house to the Youngers at significantly below market value.
As evidenced by Bev's oblivious put-downs of her African-American maid (Crystal A. Dickinson), the answer is not that they were looking to become social pioneers. Actually, thanks to a commission-obsessed real estate agent, Bev and Russ did not know the Youngers' race, offering Lindner hope for a turnabout now that he has told them.
Joined in his effort by a local minister (Brendan Griffin), who is the very definition of white-bread Protestantism, Lindner pleads with the sellers not to harm the community by striking a blow for racial diversity. But Russ could not care less about his neighbors' concerns, let alone their well-being, and in drilling down to the core of his hateful indifference, Norris' dialogue is at its corrosively comic and profound best.
As with his earlier plays, Norris is deeply skeptical of the ties that bind us, whether for noble or ignoble pursuits, and it is fascinating to watch Lindner's incredulous reactions as his racist bubble is popped by one of his own.
Wood, giving the play's strongest performance, fends off Lindner and the minister with cutting remarks that are both hilarious and heartbreaking in their bitter directness.
If Norris had written "Clybourne Park" as a one act, it would have been a compelling, if minor, companion piece to "A Raisin in the Sun." But the playwright, unfortunately, has more to say, tacking on a second act that flashes forward 50 years, to 2009, long after the neighborhood has undergone a complete demographic shift from white to black.
The Youngers, though, are nowhere to be seen; their dream home -- abandoned and dilapidated -- awaits the wrecking ball, which a privileged white couple (Annie Parisse and Jeremy Shamos) is desperate to hurry along.
All the actors return after the intermission to assume new roles in this topical gentrification story, in which African-Americans are now the group trying to preserve the communal integrity of Clybourne Park.
Again, Norris builds slowly to the verbal fireworks; in the early going, the white couple listens patiently to the excruciating minutiae of a petition being circulated against their plan to replace the Youngers' modest home with an architecturally incongruous mansion. As tensions rise, decorum eventually gives way to unexpected honesty, and then finally to an exchange of politically incorrect barbs between the African-American petitioners (Crystal A Dickinson and Damon Gupton) and most of the white cast.
By letting his characters blurt out these taboo thoughts that we are supposedly all thinking, Norris affects a racial catharsis that only rises to the level of pointless transgression. Still, this misstep is not the author's most egregious one.
Even more problematically, Norris grossly errs in smugly slapping his play's two acts together, as if the motives and behavior of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association somehow parallel those of the African-American petitioners 50 years later. If Norris truly believes that they do, then he needs a history lesson, one that at the very least covers redlining and racially restrictive covenants.
"Clybourne Park" has been extended through September 2 at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street. For info or tickets, visit the "Clybourne Park" website.