Hansberry took her title from a poem by Langston Hughes that opens with the lines “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / Like a raisin in the sun?” Hughes ended the verse with a more volatile possibility: “Or does it explode?” (Italics his.) Explode it did, in the years after Hansberry’s final curtain, and Norris’s play is most of all an effort to sort through the ensuing wreckage. By the second act of Clybourne Park, everything is on the table, including slavery, the American stain that neither time nor civil-rights advances can ever erase. “We get it, okay?” says the exasperated white homebuyer when that past rears up. “And we apologize. But what good does it do, if we perpetually fall into the same, predictable little euphemistic tap dance around the topic?” To which a black man of the neighborhood association sneers, “You know how to tap dance?”
And so the tap dancing continues—verbally, that is—as both the white and black characters work hard not just to offend each other but to take offense even when none is intended. Both Norris’s and Hansberry’s white men put great store in resolving conflicts by talking things out—to “say what it is we’re really saying …,” as one Clybourne line has it. It’s the same pitch that Obama has made nearly every time the country has driven into a racial ditch during his term. “We should all make more of an effort to discuss with one another, in a truthful and mature and responsible way, the divides that still exist,” he said during the Sherrod fracas. But for the most part we never get there, any more than do the characters of Clybourne Park.
You have to feel sympathy for Obama. A born conciliator with a well-documented history of avoiding and defusing racial confrontation, he did not want to wake up every day as The Black President. If he were white, he could duck a lot of these episodes instead of having to calibrate a political response each time. One can almost imagine the calculus: If I hold a “beer summit” for Gates, do I invite Sherrod in for tea? If I remain silent about the execution of Troy Davis, can I speak up about the killing of Trayvon Martin?
But while Clybourne Park captures the volatile blend of racial hostilities, gamesmanship, dishonesty, and sheer posturing that Obama, and, for that matter, the entire country, is up against, might it be too bleak? I still remember seeing A Raisin in the Sun as a white middle-class kid in 1961, a few months after the Kennedy inaugural, when it played the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., on tour. It was just as Martin Luther King was bringing his gospel to the nation. For an 11-year-old attending a (de facto) segregated public-school system in the nation’s capital, it was an awakening to the unreconstructed apartheid America all around me. Anyone of any race who remembers that America knows just how epic a difference the civil-rights movement made in sweeping so much of it away. The actual lives of many, if hardly all, black Americans have improved immeasurably in those 50 years.
I asked Norris if he really is as pessimistic about America’s capacity for change as his play would indicate. Yes and no. “Joe Biden says Will & Grace changed the world,” he said. “Did The Jeffersons or Cosby change the world? I don’t think so.” What Norris does see is “incredible progress on the legislative front in terms of greater justice for minorities.” But he doesn’t think that legislation can alter human nature and “prevent a change to something much worse” if, for instance, America were to fall into another economic crisis. “It’s harder to be liberal and tolerant when your existence is threatened,” he says. “You circle the wagons.”
Norris’s vision is dark—darker than my own—but he’s an artist and has no obligation to soothe or flatter his constituency. His play is truly a thing without hope, and he aims to provoke. I was particularly struck by the exasperated reactions of a group of New York City public-high-school seniors—at Talent Unlimited, a performing-arts school—who recently saw Clybourne Park and then responded to it in essays that their teacher shared with me. One of them ended her paper with this abrupt summation: “Both couples got very offended about what the other couple was saying about their race and the issue of racism was never solved.” She and her classmates—who, as it happens, attend one of the nation’s most segregated school systems—might as well learn now that, even in the age of Obama, a solution is not in sight.