Review: Centaur’s “Clybourne Park” explores illusion of racial progress

Bruce Norris' award-winning satire makes its Quebec English-Language Premiere

Eleanor Noble, Matthew Gagnon, Marcel Jeannin, Lisa Bronwyn Moore, and Harry Standjofski in Centaur Theatre’s April 2017 production of “Clybourne Park” (Photo: Andrée Lanthier)

The illusion of racial progress seems to be the pressing theme at the forefront of Montréal theatre these days (notable shoutout to Black Theatre Workshop and Tableau D’Hôte for their stellar co-production of Lorena Gale’s Angélique at the Segal Centre earlier this month), and, given accounts of alarming affairs within and across borders, we’re eager to encourage the trend.

From April 4th to 30th, the Centaur Theatre heartily houses the Pulitzer, Tony, and Olivier award-winning play Clybourne Park in its long-awaited Quebec English-Language Premiere. Written by American playwright Bruce Norris as a spinoff of Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal watershed drama “A Raisin in the Sun”, this razor sharp satire explores the relevant politics of race, gentrification, and territoriality in a refined production directed by Ellen David.

Harry Standjofski and Lisa Bronwyn Moore as married couple Russ and Bev in “Clybourne Park” (Photo: Andrée Lanthier)

Act One transports us back to fictional Clybourne Park, 1959 – a segregated all-white, middle class neighbourhood northwest of central Chicago – where spouses Russ (Harry Standjofski) and Bev Stoller (Lisa Bronwyn Moore) are moving out of their modest home in the wake of an unspeakable family tragedy.

Amid boxing packed possessions, the proprietors are unsolicitedly visited by starchy neighbour and head of the housing committee, Karl Lindner (Marcel Jeannin), who is accompanied most dutifully by his deaf, pregnant wife Betsy (Eleanor Noble). They anxiously arrive to inform the departing couple that the prospective housebuyers are “people of colour”, proceeding to plead with the homeowners to renege on the real estate deal out of fear that the incoming presence of a black family in the community would result in the plummeting of its property values and in its “social disintegration”.

With a trunk of weighty memories still upstairs that need carrying down, however, the Stollers have far greater concerns on their minds than financial gains and neighbourhood disarray. The duo is helped by their African-American housekeeper Francine and her husband Albert (Liana Montoro and Kwasi Songui), who quietly listen in to Karl’s prejudice-fueled bribery attempts. Timid young pastor Jim (Matthew Gagnon) also sits in on the heated discussion, hoping for a chance to get to the root of Russ’s grief. Tensions rise, emotions erupt, and humour is found not only in the swell of the verbal altercations but, perhaps more interestingly, in all that remains repressed and unrevealed.

Matthew Gagnon, Lisa Bronwyn Moore, Liana Montoro, Marcel Jeannin, and Kwasi Songui in Act One of “Clybourne Park”. (Photo: Andrée Lanthier)

Act Two abruptly propels us forward to 2009 and the same house is on the market again. (All actors reappear in new roles – in numerous ways related to characters in the preceding scenes).

The tables are now turned as Lindsey and Steve (Noble and Jeannin), a yuppy white couple from the suburbs, are seeking to buy and demolish the home to build a “McMansion” in what has become a predominantly black Clybourne Park. Their American dream is met with adamant opposition by Lena and Kevin (Montoro and Songui), members of the local black residents’ association fighting to preserve the property’s historical, cultural, and sentimental value. Lawyers Tom and Kathy (Moore and Gagnon) oversee the negotiations between the conflicting parties, and what inevitably ensues is an amusing abandon of political correctness.

Eleanor Noble, Marcel Jeannin, Liana Montoro, and Kwasi Songui in Act Two of “Clybourne Park” (Photo: Andrée Lanthier)

Under Ellen David’s inspired guidance on Michael Eagen’s exquisite set, the cast of seven stake out some memorable performances as allies and adversaries struggling to navigate racial divides in times old and new. The dire message, seemingly, is that perhaps much really hasn’t changed at all in that regard even over the course of half a century.

Standjofski discernibly shines in the first sixty minutes due to a colourable portrayal of the short-tempered Russ and is no less impactful in his second act stint as contracting workman Dan. Jeannin and Songui are also equally compelling throughout, the former for his incomparable magnetism (as always) and the latter for a subtle, grounded presence.

Shed of the strained politesse of their squeamishly stereotypical characters from the fifties, the remaining cast only enter the ranks and realms of the enjoyable in the faster paced second act. (The most vexing aspects of the piece were perhaps the misfired wisecracks towards the satirically “deaf” Betsy and an unfortunately strident Bev). Three-quarters of the way in we finally found ourselves invested in the ferocious family feud and a touching culmination involving a haunting apparition ultimately sealed the deal.

While the deceptively simple play is commendable for serving as a springboard for topical debate, Bruce Norris’ provocative story of property and privilege arguably poses itself at instances as a bit passé to Montréal audiences. That’s not to dismiss the idea that racial fears are very much still at play in our own backyards and that deeply entrenched white hegemony is herein still present; the overall relevance of Clybourne Park cannot be disputed. My own political correctness aside, however, I assert that much of the hypocrisy, ignorance, and intolerance expressed by the characters in the form of catty patter and banal bickering felt unbefitting in face of progressive, cultured onlookers. Forgivable, but I also reckon thirsty theatregoers are a step ahead.

Qualms and quibbles apart, Clybourne Park remains a delightfully caustic comedy of a battle over claims to turf and tradition. The play’s broader focus on the individual and collective concerns towards the future of our families, communities, and nations make it one of the major English language theatrical affairs to see within city limits this month.

Review by Montreal Theatre Hub Editor-in-Chief Camila Fitzgibbon

Where: Centaur Theatre (453 St-François-Xavier Street)
When: April 4th to 30th, 2017
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes (including one 20-minute intermission)
Admission: $51 (Thursday, Friday, Saturday evenings), $45 (Tuesday, Wednesday evenings), $39 (matinee), seniors: $43.50 (evening), $38 (matinee), under 30: $36.50, students: $28
Box Office: (514) 288-3161 |
Talk-back: Join director, Ellen David, and the cast following the evening performance on Thursday April 13th and the matinée presentation on Sunday April 16th.