The Comedy, Humor, and Prejudice in the Performance of Clybourne Park at the SCC Fine Arts Auditorium
On Wednesday night, September 30th, I went to see Clybourne Park at the SCC Fine Arts Auditorium. I attended the show as an assignment for my Fundamentals of Acting class, THE- 128, so I chose to take this portfolio assignment from a theatrical standpoint. Having never experienced this particular theatre before, I will admit I was a bit distracted by the unfamiliarity of it all. I felt as though I were attending a performance in an older and smaller version of my high school’s auditorium. The color choice, a very late 80’s and early 90’s palette, just felt a little jarring and outdated. A simple black interior design would have complemented both the campus and the stage nicely. Anyway, moving past the interior design, I had a seat in the back-most row, since I am far sighted, and my experience unfolded with the rest of the evening.
The show was an overall wonderful experience for me, and I believe that as a theatrical work this play is a spectacle to behold. Between its brilliant depiction of two separate moments in history, visual elements to accurately represent the historical context, excellent character portrayal, and a shared theme of communication causing a difference in attitudes and interactions, Clybourne park is a stunning show that holds its own amongst the theatrical pieces of modern entertainment.
As is to be expected, here is a quick summary of the play as I experienced it: To begin, we have the first of two timelines the show includes. Taking place not long after the Korean War, 1959, this timeline stars Russ and his wife, Beverly. Russ and Beverly had a son, who after serving his time in the Korean War, committed suicide. The two are in a terrible state of turmoil, silently suffering over the death of their son, all while being pressured by their neighbors, Karl and Jim, to reconsider selling their home to an african american family. Then, in Act II, we are taken to the very same house, long since abandoned, in 2009. On yet another Saturday afternoon, a group of young adults in Chicago Illinois gather within the house to discuss purchasing it, when things go haywire and an enormous discussion of race interrupts the whole affair.
Before getting into the acting, the scenery and costume design was handled quite well in this performance, as is to be expected in any high caliber theatre production. The scenery utilizes one set for both acts, that set being the same living room of the same Chicago home. In Act I, the house is scattered about with boxes, suggesting that someone is going to either move out or has just moved in. The context clues of the speech make it clear that it is the former rather quickly, but this kind of cue from the scenery is important when it comes to plays. It gives the audience more time to wonder why they would be moving, rather than trying to get their bearings on what exactly is happening.
The home is not exactly made to look vintage, and it does not make it obvious what era you are in based solely on wallpaper and furniture (though the couches could suggest that you are dealing with a mid 20th century home if you cross analyze it enough.) What does make it apparent, however, is the costumes. The dress of Russ and Beverly indicates a 50’s kind of wardrobe, with Bev wearing a dress strictly for being around the house. The other characters to enter the home also wear prudent and sophisticated outfits, something which you just do not expect to see in high abundance these days without some sort of special occasion. The color choice also does a good job of indicating this, between the pale greens and the dull browns in everyone’s outfits.
The greens definitely remind me of an atomic era “nuclear family”. The same can be said in Act II, for both the set and the costumes. The set changes only the walls and the floors, showing that the wallpaper has peeled and debris lays strewn about the floor. It is obvious the house is abandoned, but we cannot tell for how long as an audience. Again, what helps nail down the time without any other context clues is the dress. The characters wear very modern fashion, from a hoodie and jeans with a beanie to a slim fitting striped sweater and jeans on a female, it is clear we have escaped the misogynistic wardrobe restraints of the 50’s. Kind of shocking that women wearing pants is actually a context clue for two different eras only 50 years apart, right?
Now, as I said before, the acting for this play is very, very well done at certain points. The actors made it a good point to maintain vocal clarity and intelligible volume, which I think I can speak to, since I was in the back. So, as far as vocal characterization goes, I was impressed. Russ’ opening bit about foreign countries. He did a very convincing job at playing the embarrassing dad character (for lack of a better term), between his cheesy Mongolian accent and his furious rage towards his neighbors– heck, even the sobbing at the end had me convinced. Not to ignore the female actors, though, because they were absolutely stunning as well! Beverly’s actress may have suffered from a little bit of underacting physically, like the scene with the chafing dish and Albert.
Beverly was trying to give him something, and in desperation she continued to insist on giving him the chafing dish that she had originally offered Francine. Albert, however, was offended by the implication that they needed anything as a handout, and grew more frustrated with Bev as she kept badgering him to take something. In order to better portray this urgency, Beverly could have picked up some of these offerings, like the chafing dish, and become more forceful with her offerings. Instead, she sort of let her hands drop to her sides and used her voice to emote. This being the only real complaint I had about their acting, I should take this moment to applaud Francine’s character and acting.
Not only did the actor nail down the mannerisms of a 50’s servant, but she did a wonderful job playing a convincing relationship with her boyfriend Albert. The interaction between the two felt very genuine, and their argument carried the uncomfortable intensity you would see in a real couple’s public argument. Both characters this actress played did a wonderful job harnessing the character and making it believable. However, as well as the actors played their parts and emoted with their lines, it could not fix the faults of the script. Maybe I am just bad at picking up on context clues, but in Act II I had a terribly difficult time understanding who these characters were, what they were doing, and why they were doing it.
Speaking of Act II, I would like to jump over to the subject of focus. There was a little malfunction in the wardrobe when Steve got up to argue with his wife, and in moving so quickly his beanie flew off his head. While he spoke the ensuing lines and fiddled with getting the hat back on his head, I saw his mouth start to break into a smile– even though his lines were supposed to be frustrated or angry. I saw the same thing happen in Act I, during one of Russ’ passionate monologues. When he told Jim and Steve to “politely go f— yourselves”, the rest of his line felt very distracted and his eyes began to dart, and I am assuming this was because the theatre was breaking into laughter when it should have been frozen in uncomfortable tension.
So focus and concentration may have been an issue, but what stands out the most about this play is the humor. Now, I know I was really harsh on the audience for finding humor in the morbid parts of Act I. Act II, however, does comedy like it was born to. Many of the bits rely on a great sense of comedic timing, between awkward pauses and very quick retorts. As far as timing goes, the best bit I can think of is when several characters explain turn by turn, one after the other, why Steve’s prison joke is offensive– without much room to gestate, another horrible coincidence is revealed to personally offend the characters.
Another part of comedy that they did wonderfully was tonality. Steve’s best jokes, in my opinion, relied on an exasperated and frantic tone. Meanwhile, Kevin and Dan both used a sense of cluelessness (facetious and genuine) to get their jokes across. Kevin, for example, set up Steve’s joke by playing an unexpecting, almost innocent anticipation for what would end up being a racist jab, getting an ironic laugh. Dan, of course, gets the laughs because he is genuinely oblivious to the entire situation– barging in and interrupting the heated argument throughout the entire act.
All in all, I very much enjoyed Clybourne Park. I am easily hooked in by political commentaries, and I especially get a kick out of unexpected parallels people draw between historical prejudice and modern prejudice. The show has a great amount of variety between drama and comedy, and I find that impressive. Usually my immersion with a show is ruined when these two elements mix– but this play does is wonderfully. Perhaps it was the gentle introduction of comedy in Act I, overshadowed by the drama. It could even be the way they spread it out between two acts, but I came out of that show with a mixed sense of frustration for modern prejudice, and I even came out amused with the humor in the show at the same time.
- Clybourne Park. By Bruce Norris. St Charles Community College, St Charles. 30 Sept. 2015. Performance.