We’ve just wrapped up our first week of rehearsals for Geva’s production of Bruce Norris’ award-winning play, Clybourne Park. The play is Bruce Norris’ response to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. According to an interview in Reimagining A Raisin in the Sun: Four New Plays, a middle school in Houston provided Norris with his first contact with Hansberry’s pioneering play (the 1959 production was the first play by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway, and at the age of 29, Hansberry was the youngest American and only the fifth woman to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award).
Says Norris: “I saw A Raisin in the Sun as a film in probably 7th grade. Interestingly our Social Studies teacher was showing it to a class of all white students who lived in an independent school district the boundaries of which had been formed specifically to prevent being our being integrated into the Houston school district and being bused to other schools with black students. So I don’t know whether our teacher was just obtuse or crafty and subversive but she was showing us a movie that basically in the end — because Karl doesn’t come in until the second act — is really pointing a finger at us and saying we are those people. So I watch it at twelve years old and I could realize even then that I’m Karl Lindner. To see that when you’re a kid and to realize that you’re the villain has an impact. For years I thought I wanted to play Karl Lindner but then as time went on I thought it’s really an interesting story to think about the conversation that was going on in the white community about the Younger family moving into Clybourne Park. It percolated for many years and that’s how I ended up writing this play.”
On the first day of rehearsals, designer Skip Mercier shared with the cast and Geva’s staff his designs for the set and costumes. I was fascinated by Skip’s presentation – it’s always exciting to see the designs, of course, but this play presents a particular challenge. As Skip correctly points out, the house in this play is really another one of the play’s characters. The first act takes place in Chicago in 1959, the second act takes place in the same house in 2009. What happens to a home in fifty years?
Norris’ stage directions give us the beginning of the story. In act 1, the house is “in disarray. Cardboard boxes are stacked in the corners. Some furniture has been removed, shelves emptied.” But, as you see from the model for Skip Mercier’s set, above, the house is well-appointed. It’s a typical Chicago bungalow, and the model, with the absence of furniture, makes it appear quite airy and serene. Act 2’s stage directions require “an overall shabbiness to the place that was not the case fifty years earlier. The wooden staircase has been replaced with a cheaper metal one. The oak mantelpiece and most of the woodwork have been painted over several times, the fireplace opening is bricked in, linoleum covers large areas of the wooden floor and plaster has crumbled from the lath in places.”
So this house has been through serious change and neglect. There is a fantastic article by Beryl Satter in The Lincoln Center Theatre Review, which I’d urge you to read, if you’re interested in the whole story. I’ll share a few excerpts here:
“The characters in Clybourne Park provide standard liberal explanations for the property’s sorry state. The white characters make vague references to drugs, violence, segregation, and public housing projects. The black characters make equally vague references to “certain economic interests that are being served” by the economic decline that precedes gentrification. The characters then switch back to what they “all know” is the real issue–personal racism, including the apparently pressing questions of whether whites have black friends and whether black people can ski. So what, exactly, did happen to that house?”
“A contract buyer makes a down payment. He or she is also responsible for taxes, insurance, interest, and property maintenance. But contract buyers, unlike mortgage buyers, get no equity in their property until it is paid for in full. Properties sold on contract could be repossessed if the purchaser missed even one monthly payment. You could pay $8,500 on a house priced at $9,000, miss a payment, and lose the property. Until the late 1960s, banks and savings and loan institutions overwhelmingly practiced “red lining,” refusing to make mortgage loans to African-Americans no matter what their individual credit history. In the mid-twentieth century, real-estate speculators purchased property “low” from whites and sold “high” to blacks. But if the blacks couldn’t get mortgages, how could they buy, and buy high at that? The answer, in Chicago and in many other cities, was to purchase on contract. Contract buying seemed to give black buyers a chance to circumvent the national, race-based credit blockage that stood between them and their aspirations for home ownership. Yet the chance that contract buying gave to African-American home buyers was stacked against them by the inflated prices they were forced to pay. For example, a 1963 study found that the average price markup on properties sold to Chicago’s African-Americans on contract was 73 percent. In the late 1950s, of Chicago’s almost one million black residents, 85 percent of those who bought property purchased on contract. In all likelihood, this was how the house in Clybourne Park would have changed hands.”
“Black contract buyers who purchased at inflated prices could not afford to miss a single payment without losing everything. If the wife in a couple wasn’t working, she took a job. If both had jobs, they took on extra shifts. They put off building maintenance. They divided up their properties and crammed in extra tenants. In short, they engaged in heroic efforts to hold on to their properties, but that wasn’t how their white neighbors viewed the situation. They saw the effects-overcrowded properties, declining maintenance, absent parents and unsupervised children. They knew nothing of the cause. Frustrated by the obvious decline of their community, whites sold at a loss and moved to the suburbs, bitter over having been “driven out” of their community. But their African-American neighbors, many of whom had earnings and tastes every bit as middle-class as those of their white predecessors, didn’t have that option. Because they had bought on contract, they couldn’t sell. They could only abandon, and, in doing so, sacrifice every penny invested to date.”
“Contract buying could explain the deterioration of the property that rests at the center of Clybourne Park. It would have nothing to do with the tastes and lifestyles of the new black owners and everything to do with the predatory financing they were forced to accept-a situation invisible to those not ensnared in it. Of course, dangerous real-estate financing was only one of numerous exploitative practices entrapping black homeowners, ranging from unfair property assessments and inflated insurance premiums to excessive charges for groceries and gasoline.”