When a playwright—say, provocateur Bruce Norris—has to be dragged into an interview, and then only with his producer serving as chaperone, you expect some touchiness. You don’t expect to be called a whore and told that director Franco Zeffirelli is a “douche bag.” But you do begin to understand—if you’ve seen his plays—Norris’s abiding fear of tape recorders. He means to offend, but he wants final cut.
In 2006, when The Pain and the Itch became the first of Norris’s plays to be staged in New York, Playwrights Horizons’ cultivated subscribers were treated to a cast of liberal hypocrites, a 4-year-old girl with a genital rash, and a seemingly sympathetic Serbian woman who turned out to be a racist. (Audiences “want to align themselves with someone in a play,” Norris explains, “and one of the most fun things to do is deny them that option.”) His second Horizons play, opening this week, is Clybourne Park, about white flight and gentrification, which features racist jokes, unspeakable contempt, and mental images that would make Mamet blush. It’s also a subtle and well-crafted piece of theater.
Norris’s provocations seem instinctual. “These things are so reflexive that I don’t even examine them,” he says. “When I’m at a dinner table with a bunch of people and we’re talking about what they saw on TV or how their baby is doing, I’m so incredibly bored. I want there to be an argument, and so I start one. It’s incredibly easy to do.”
Because The Pain and the Itch tilted against PBS-watching bobos while other local playwrights were preaching Bush hatred to the converted, many assumed Norris was a Republican. In fact, he went door-to-door for Kerry. “I see a lot of plays that help sustain the flattering illusion that we are a noble and uplifting generation,” he says. In reality, “we’re a destructive, incredibly corrosive force in the world, and we should stop reproducing. ”
While Clybourne Park rips the p.c. mask off polite gentrifiers, Norris notes that his parents moved his family (including brother John, formerly of MTV) from their Houston neighborhood in part to avoid busing, and that “my primary exposure to anyone African-American up until I was 14 was our maid. There’s no way to escape the fact that I’m a racist,” he adds. “I’d like to imagine I was an android who had only pure thoughts, but I’m a human, and I’m an animal. And I think that’s true for everyone.”
There is one thing Norris is self-righteously earnest about. Last year he earned just $19,000. Yet, despite taking Hollywood’s money for acting gigs like the role of a stuttering schoolteacher in The Sixth Sense, when I ask him why he doesn’t write movies, he replies, “What are you, a whore?” Then adds: “I’m a very controlling, fascistic autocrat, and I wouldn’t want someone to just wipe their ass with the script I’ve written.”
Tim Sanford, Playwrights Horizons’ artistic director and Norris’s interview chaperone, produced The Pain and the Itch more or less on a dare. Norris cornered Sanford at the West Bank Cafe and said, “I’ve figured out why you’ll never do my plays. You believe in redemption.” It was a dig at Horizons’ aesthetic, and an irresistible come-on: “I don’t want to be accused of being a gutless slave to redemption,” Sanford says—and so he brought the play in from Chicago.
Clybourne Park is a fictitious Chicago neighborhood, and the city’s Steppenwolf Theater Company puts up so much of his work that some friends still assume he lives there. Norris, now 49, did live in Chicago, without much enthusiasm, for nineteen years. But twelve years ago he moved to (very gentrified, very white) Brooklyn Heights, and much prefers New York, even if it’s an awful place to produce. “A lot of writers I know, if it was possible to avoid having a production here, I think they would,” he says. It’s a “viper’s nest” of critics (“consumer advocates”) and competition, where “the need to commodify becomes really intense.” Then he can’t resist implicating himself one last time. “I’m contributing to the problem of New York’s theater consciousness by living here,” he says. “I think about moving back to Chicago.”