Liminal Playhouse, which numbers among the best companies the independent theater scene in Louisville has to offer, is back on stage this weekend with Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park.” This 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning play takes on race, gentrification and the vicissitudes of time. It also acts as a spinoff of sorts for Lorraine Hansberry’s classic “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Director Tony Prince spoke with Insider about the play’s interesting structure and how the issues are especially pertinent to Louisville.
“The first act is in 1959,” said Prince, “and it takes place in a Chicago where — just like ‘Raisin in the Sun’ — a house is being sold to the first black family to live in this neighborhood.”
While the setting of Act 1 strongly mirrors “Raisin,” you can expect plenty of twists and turns, including subplots that may come back in the second act.
That act pulls from the Civil Rights era and reflects a time in our nation’s history that saw huge upheavals in the makeup of neighborhoods.
Those changes continue to shape our cities today.
“Then in Act 2, it’s quite different,” Price continued. “It’s 50 years later to the day, and the house is the same house, but it has since gone through a period where the house is a wreck, it’s been empty for a while, the neighborhood has transitioned.”
Historically speaking, those 50 years would see programs like redlining and unjust allotment of government funds, which have had a strong negative effect on African-American neighborhoods. Not to mention the effects of the drug war, the criminalization of marijuana and the introduction of crack.
With that decline in full effect, the second act begins.
“And now, the first white family is moving back into the neighborhood,” said Prince.
The reasons that family is moving downtown might sound familiar to some Louisvillians.
“It’s close to downtown. It always was, but now it’s ‘a good thing,’ as opposed to ’59 and that period in between with white flight and the suburbs being created,” said Prince.
He is, of course, referencing a process many people call gentrification, and the questions posed by this play might be uncomfortable for some of us in the audience.
You can hardly read the news in Louisville without someone talking about NuLu, Butchertown, Portland, Shelby Park or some other underserved neighborhood that is suddenly becoming cool, with affluent folks moving in and pushing up real estate prices.
The family in Act 2 isn’t even that happy about the house they moved into, just its location.
“So this white family is moving in, but they basically want to tear the house down and build a larger one,” said Prince.
So while this play is already seven years old, its ideas and themes couldn’t be more of the moment for Louisville. Prince also suggested the themes are important in light of the national news, indicating we are in a very different country than we were in 2010.
“It was first done in 2010, but here we are in 2017, and all these issues of racial divisions and what we thought was healing, we just kind of realized they’re still lurking, simmering and resurfacing in different times and situations,” Prince said. “And there is a ratcheting up. These things are not so hidden in our current political climate.”
But it’s not just themes and big ideas about politics and justice that drew Prince to this play.
“It operates on a micro and macro level, about differences and homes, and who counts as your home, who’s allowed to be in your neighborhood, what does that mean.”
And don’t expect easy answers from Prince, or “Clybourne Park.”
“It’s not didactic,” he explained. “Because I really don’t like didactic plays. I don’t like to end a play with people going, ‘Oh, I’ve learned something today.’ I mean, that’s fine, I don’t mind going to see a play where that happens. But it’s not what we’re doing.”
Prince is following an old adage: Make the kind of art you want to see.
“I like doing plays where you leave and think, ‘Hmm, now I’m less sure of the world than I was when I walked in, not more smugly certain about my beliefs and ideas,’” said Prince. “I like things to kind of knock myself — and therefore other people — around intellectually and morally and emotionally. And this one does that.”
That lack of answer — and being pushed outside of one’s comfort zone — plays right back into Liminal’s mission statement: To live in the space between, where things are in flux.
Thankfully, in the company’s first three seasons, one thing that hasn’t fluctuated is the its high quality, which makes “Clybourne Park” a must-see for this writer.
“Clybourne Park” is on stage at The Henry Clay, 604 S. Third St., from Oct. 26-Nov. 5. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 26-28 and Nov. 2-4, and at 2 p.m. on Oct. 29 and Nov. 5. Tickets are $20.