November 22, 2022: Clybourne Park at ALT Adventure Space

Cast of Clybourne Park taking a curtain call in Act II costumes: ALT Adventure Space, Nov 13, 2022

Ever take a trip down memory lane and, returning to the present, realize that though outward appearances have changed, basically things are still the same?

That thread connects the two acts of Clybourne Park, a 2012 play by Bruce Norris that would win both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony, and which a lucky Amarillo audience saw performed at the ALT Adventure Space, Nov. 10- 20, 2022.

A spin-off of Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, the play bookends by acts the issues of segregation, material priorities, gender roles and social change in the years 1959 and 2009. Overriding each is the inability or refusal of people to listen to one another, verbal pretense to the contrary.

Bruce Norris’s play is an acerbic satire which holds a mirror up to our faces and tells us, “Houston, we have problems!” Long before Woke and the Critical Race Theory conspiracies of the Far Right, this play revealed unresolved attitudes and outlooks endemic in the collective American psyche.

A message that shouts throughout the play is that of pretense: everyone mounts a behavioral facade. And, all households and their humans contribute to a cloak of camouflage until reality pulls the cover off and forces the revelations of true feelings as well as bringing skeletons out of the closet. Human nature is always the great leveler in the human condition.

The play is an aggregation of antipodes: Act I is about 50’s segregation; Act II is about white exclusion. The Act I focus is to keep the neighborhood white. That of Act II is to maintain the ethnic character of the now black Clybourne Park. Act I is about the perceived threat of upwardly-mobile blacks while Act II the danger derives from opportunistic whites.

Insinuated throughout both acts is an elevated self interest which doubles down on the inevitable change taking place. The only resolution comes at the conclusion from the audience and Dan the Plumber knowing the terrible secret held in this house and neighborhood.

A contrapuntal identity also typifies the characters, who play different individuals in each act. For instance, Jenny Whisenhunt makes her ALT debut as Bev and Kathy. Bev is a cross between June Cleaver and Edith Bunker, a parody of the 1950’s homemaker who puts a smiley face on everything. Lawyer Kathy emerges as an in-your-face advocate first for her clients, then for herself. Jenny’s vivid and distinct characterizations portend future ALT appearances.

Jay Hayes and Brandon Graves play the black couple in both acts. The playwright starts them from different positions in both acts, but they ultimately arrive at the same place of distrust and animosity.

Brooks Boyett showed his versatility by playing a pastor in Act I and a gay lawyer in Act II.

One actor whose persona, that of “Dispicable Me,” didn’t change was Zach Oehm. If you’ve ever known someone who doesn’t know they don’t know, and who can’t come to the point and doesn’t know when to shut up, then meet Karl and Steve. Zach said that the redeeming quality in his characters was he made the others look good. And his wife in both acts, played by Lilly Green, rendered Zach’s portrayals realistic, especially since in the first act Betsy is deaf, and she just smiled at his histrionics.

An especially strong performance was given by Shad Tyra, who played Russ and Dan. Russ, in Act I, is Bev’s husband, and is a come-to-the-point sort of guy who believes in seeing things for what they are and calling a spade a spade. He also believes, as did men of that era, in keeping your problems to yourself.

As Dan, he is a working man’s working man, devoid of social graces and intent on completing the job. This happens to be construction of a new utility line since the city sees the trend towards upscaling in Clybourne Park. Sound familiar to Artsy Amarillo where red lines determine which areas receive new and improved services and which have to just make do?

In his digging, he unearths the dirty secret: Russ and Bev’s son Kenneth’s army uniform with his suicide note. Loud, oafish Dan becomes pensive and focused as he reads, doing Kenneth the courtesy of listening to him in the silence of death.

In a flashback, Kenneth appears in his dress greens. When mother Bev asks why he’s dressed so early, he responds that he has a job interview. The play concludes with Bev saying, “I really believe things are about to change for the better.”

At all points of the play the deft direction of Stephen Crandall is evident. His choice of actors was spot on, and their interaction, under his guidance, made the play work. Nowhere is Stephen’s touch more evident than two challenging scenes in Act II where all six actors are talking simultaneously, each one grandstanding from their own soapbox without hearing what anyone else is saying.

It’s no wonder that all of the characters, even the married couples, turn on each other.

Out of a smorgasbord of takeaways, this one stood out: our increasing polarization as a people basically stems from not listening to one another. Paraphrasing the character played by Brandon Graves, “If we could all just sit around a big table, have a meal and listen to one another.”

A noble wish for this upcoming Thanksgiving.

Our thanks go to the playwright, and ALT’s cast and crew of Clybourne Park, for doing what good theatre to do: yank us out of our comfort zones and suggest that there is another and better way forward.

The fact that we can attend provocative, Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatic theatre in this unlikely place, is all the more reason for us to say:

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!!

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