Eight times a week, audiences at the play Clybourne Park are laughing at jokes as racist as any ever heard in a modern Broadway theater. While the audiences are mostly (though not exclusively) white, the racism onstage does meet a basic diversity quota. No sooner does a white man ask and answer the question “What’s long and hard on a black man?” than he is countered by a black female antagonist posing the riddle “Why is a white woman like a tampon?” Unlike the intentionally tasteless gags minted by the South Park guys at The Book of Mormon around the corner, these jokes were not written to sow escapist mirth. They are more mean-spirited than funny. The audience’s laughter is triggered not by the characters’ wit, which is minimal, but by the sheer audacity of their racial volleys. It is the audacity of rage, not hope.
The play’s 52-year-old author, Bruce Norris, is white. He has already won the Pulitzer Prize for this work and next month could win the Tony, too. Though Clybourne Park didn’t arrive on Broadway until this spring, it has been a cultural fixture during much of the Obama presidency. Following its Off Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons in early 2010, it has been produced in Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Los Angeles; London (where it won the Tony equivalent, the Olivier); and Obama’s own town of Chicago. Chicago is also where the play is set, in two very different American eras 50 years apart—1959 (Act I) and 2009 (Act II). Or nominally different, anyway. Clybourne Park says that when it comes to race in America, not that much has changed over the past half-century, the historic arrival of an African-American family in the White House notwithstanding.
Both halves of his play are about a fight over a plain little house in the (fictional) neighborhood of Clybourne Park. In 1959, a three-generation black family from a ghetto on the South Side has just purchased it and is preparing to move in—over the objections of a neighborhood association that wants to keep its enclave lily-white. By 2009, that battle over integration is half-forgotten ancient history. Clybourne Park, like so many other urban neighborhoods nationwide, had long ago turned black in the wake of wholesale white flight to the suburbs. The house has since devolved into a graffiti-defaced teardown, battered by decades of poverty, crime, drugs, and neglect. But lo and behold, the neighborhood is “changing” again. A young white suburban couple is moving back into the rapidly gentrifying Clybourne Park. It’s convenient for work, and there’s a new Whole Foods besides. The only hitch is that middle-class African-Americans in the present-day neighborhood association are as hostile to white intruders as their racist white antecedents were to black homebuyers 50 years earlier.
Norris started writing Clybourne in 2006, before Obama ran for president. He tweaked the script slightly after his ascension. “Even though I was a supporter,” the playwright said when I spoke to him recently, “I listened to his speech of hope and change, and I thought to myself, ‘Good luck.’ ” That pessimism led him to add a line for the character of Bev, a white fifties housewife even more sheltered than Betty Draper from the America outside her immediate domain. “I really believe things are about to change for the better,” she says. Bev’s naïve declaration of hope, delivered in the play’s coda, seems laughably delusional after the audience has bathed in two hours of mayhem among the white and black characters, none of it happily resolved. However well meaning, she’s a fool destined to be mowed down by historical forces she doesn’t remotely understand or anticipate.
That Norris takes a bleak—albeit frequently hilarious—view of our racial state of affairs is not hard to fathom. For all the national chatter about a “post-racial America” following the 2008 election, America seems more obsessed with race than ever, if less honest about it, since Obama strode onto the national stage. If the official milestones of his administration thus far include the passage of the stimulus and the Affordable Care Act, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and the endorsement of gay marriage, they have often been upstaged by the red-letter incidents of racial conflict that have steadily rolled out on a parallel track. Just a short list would include: the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Cambridge; the hysterical tea-party rally against health-care reform that showered obscenities on black congressmen entering the Capitol; the ousting of the African-American Department of Agriculture worker Shirley Sherrod after she was libeled as a racist; the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia; the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida; and, this month, the protest of more than 40 percent of West Virginia Democratic-primary voters, who pulled the lever for an obscure white federal-prison inmate rather than endorse a second run for the incumbent president of their own party. Last week brought the pièce de résistance: the Times revelation of a proposed super-PAC TV commercial that would slime Obama as pretending to be a “metrosexual black Abe Lincoln.” With material this good, it’s hard for a playwright to keep up. But Norris comes close.