In the program for "Clybourne Park," Bruce Norris' Pulitzer Prize-winning drama at the Mark Taper Forum, Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie lauds the play and "A Raisin in the Sun," the 1959 classic that inspired it and is running in revival across town at the Kirk Douglas.
Ritchie goes on to say that they have equally potent things to say about race in America and that both shows offer people "a lens through which they can talk about race." He concludes by hoping that "we as a community can use [the plays] as a stepping-off point for further reflection and conversation."
I certainly hope Ritchie is right. But his talk about generating more talk sharply reminded me that when it comes to race matters these days, conversation tends to be as far as we get. In the 50 years that separate these shows, the hydra-headed issues of racial injustice — starting with where we live — have gone from being catalysts for action and confrontation to being all about words. In life and in art, we have steadily moved from mining racial anger to simply managing it.
Where the dramatic urgency of "Raisin" and the first act of "Clybourne" is driven by blacks and whites fighting to do the right (or wrong) thing in 1959, by 2009 the crises of action have been replaced by a comedy of manners. The issue is no longer what we should do but what we should say and how we should say it; those potent racial issues Ritchie mentions in his welcome to the Taper audience have become a battle of intellect and posture, not a battle for the country's soul.
This is no criticism of "Clybourne Park," which brilliantly exposes the earnest but erroneous belief among many whites — notably liberals — that talking about racial equality is somehow proof that we have achieved it. Norris' play makes that point in two contrasting acts. The first act picks up exactly where "Raisin" left off, albeit in the tidy living room of a home in the all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood, the home that a middle-aged couple unwittingly sold to the Youngers, much to the consternation of their neighbors. The second act is set in the same living room 50 years later, but this time it's whites who are seeking to move into (and remake) a chiefly black community that struggles as much as the original white one hummed along.
That whites fail to recognize the implications of what's happened between then and now is a reality that deserves full theatrical treatment. But I have to say, it's a reality that distresses me as an African American in 2012.
America long ago retired its Negro problem and now limits its social responsibility to maintaining civility and a sophisticated kind of tolerance toward blacks and black issues. Such is the extent of the integration that the Youngers believed in so deeply but couldn't really imagine in 1959. Integration then was the great unknown, a prospect that was terrifying but necessary — what other step forward could they take?
Today, we are post-integration (as opposed to post-racial) and like to assume that the most harrowing times and thorniest issues are behind us, despite evidence and statistics that say otherwise. Incarceration of blacks is at an all-time high, black unemployment is the highest in the country and climbing. One of the many paradoxes illuminated by "Clybourne Park" is that while blacks now are certainly more present among whites — in the second act they sit around the same Clybourne Park living room as neighbors, not as the help — they remain symbols. The racism of the larger society that forged the memorable, exquisitely tortured Walter Lee Younger and that still affects the lives of Lena and Kevin generations later is absent from the stage. The overall state of African Americans is no longer a major character in its own right. Lorraine Hansberry would have been floored.
In some ways these shows are entirely unrelated. The cachet of "Raisin in the Sun" in 1959 was its POV. Hansberry was young, black, female and middle class — an almost inconceivable demographic at the time — who was writing as the civil rights movement was getting seriously underway. Blacks speaking in their own voice, dropping the mask of stoicism and forbearance to reveal the rage and frustration underneath was radical in more ways than one.
Playwright Bruce Norris is white and came of age after the '60s; "Clybourne" focuses not on blacks but on unmasking whites and their own hypocrisies and pieties about race that have developed over the decades since. Both these artists' perspectives are valid, but they don't really converge in ways that we expect — or that we hope — they would. But then, why would they? Modern race relations are defined by a lack of that convergence.
The last real opportunity for blacks and whites to come together occurs in Act 1 in "Clybourne," when Karl Lindner heatedly tries and fails to persuade his neighbors not to sell to the Youngers. The sale sets in motion the white flight and declining property values that Lindner predicted — well, ensured — would happen. Black re-isolation and community deterioration sets in, and by 2009 whites are back on the scene to remake the place and "improve" what they consciously destroyed by pulling out 50 years earlier. This is the troubling but anticlimactic history that blacks have lived with and that whites want to forget, or at least render themselves blameless for. And never the twain shall meet.
Meanwhile, blacks continue to endure it all. In both acts and time periods of "Clybourne," Francine/Lena and Albert/Kevin are essentially the same people, constrained by the same anger and social forces; their characters don't appreciably change because the role of blacks in society hasn't. In 2009 it is still their job to make whites (and everyone else, including other blacks) see the error of their ways; it is still where much of their psychic energy goes. Lena and Kevin are more vocal with whites than their forebears, but there's a real sense of battle fatigue made worse by the strange nature of progress. Integration has been thwarted and black life has declined in once-idyllic Clybourne Park, but Lena and Kevin want to claim that history and honor it somehow. They resent the whites' sense of being entitled to change that history as they see fit, a sense of entitlement that's been unbroken for 50 years.
When Albert says to an insistent Bev in Act 1, "We don't want your things, we got our own things," it presages the moment 50 years later when white families assume that of course blacks want the benefit of their presence — their "things." But the painful and still relevant truth is that Walter Lee is driven nearly mad in "Raisin" by the lack of all the white folks' things he doesn't have — not just material things like chafing dishes but intangible things such as self-respect, a bright outlook, a lack of worry. In a word, freedom. It is this nearly doomed pursuit that makes the black man such a force in "Raisin." Walter Lee's fury radiates in all directions — to his wife, mother, sister, society, white folk, black folk, and of course, to himself. He's an antihero of Greek-tragedy proportions, endangered even more than he knows. He must be saved, and if he isn't, there are clear consequences for him and for the world at large. That's Hansberry's message.
In Norris' drama, the modern black man is the least interesting figure, a fixed point around which the white characters group and reveal themselves in various ways. The black woman is more animated but similarly fixed: tight-lipped, always tensed for a fight with white folk. Lena is angry that the dream of a successful black neighborhood is still deferred, and the anger grates on her just as it did on her great- aunt for whom she was named. Yet there is nothing she or Kevin can do — except talk. Some things don't change.
Aubry Kaplan is a contributing editor to The Times' opinion pages and is the author of "Black Talk, Blue Thoughts and Walking the Color Line: Dispatches From a Black Journalista."