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.
In the standard telling of American racial history, the heroes, villains, and victims of such stories tend to be unambiguous. In keeping with our present reality, Clybourne Park departs from that pattern by going after white liberals and black characters, too. Indeed, Norris has been taken for a conservative by some because he sometimes portrays well-intentioned whites as sanctimonious and patronizing hypocrites. In truth, he’s just an equal-opportunity misanthrope. There is hardly anyone in either act of the play—fifteen characters in all—who is sympathetic, not even the ghostly Korean War veteran who had the good sense to commit suicide before the curtain goes up on Act I. Norris’s collection of Americans would be right at home on any cable channel whenever a racial story, even an anecdote as relatively small bore as a testy conflict between a black Harvard professor and a white cop, rises to the level of 24/7 infotainment.
Norris violates another fundamental maxim of mainstream narratives of American racial history written by whites as well—that they should be uplifting parables with a clear-cut message and, at the end, a glimmer of racial justice yet to come, God be willing. Clybourne Park could not be further removed in sensibility from, say, To Kill a Mockingbird (whose 50th anniversary was celebrated in 2010 just as Shirley Sherrod was being pilloried). His play doesn’t culminate in a stirring courtroom scene but with the protracted telling of a joke about a “big black man” raping a “little white guy” in a jail cell. Norris’s mission is to prod those of us who have tended to be starry-eyed about Obama’s breakthrough into conducting a reality check. He reminds us that America has a long way to go before it gets anywhere near its promised nirvana of racial reconciliation, if it ever does. He tells us that unreconstructed white racists, of whom there are still a significant number in America, are not the whole problem. His lunatic humor may not be built for the ages, but it surely encapsulates the lunatic racial atmosphere of the Obama years to date.
There has been change on the American playing field of race since Inauguration Day 2009—not so much for the better or the worse, but a shift into a kind of twilight zone where the nation’s racial conversation has moved from its usual gears of intractability, obfuscation, angry debate, and platitudinous sentimentality to the truly unhinged. It’s as if everyone can now say, well, that’s that, we’ve elected our first African-American president, we can pat ourselves on the back for doing so, and, with that noble and historic accomplishment in the bank, we will sign on to sideshows ranging from a Herman Cain stunt presidential run to a malicious jihad mounted by a right-wing hit man in Los Angeles, Andrew Breitbart, to destroy Sherrod, an obscure federal worker in Georgia. You’d think Obama’s victory gave the entire country permission to act out like the racial brawlers of Clybourne Park.
It has certainly encouraged the GOP to unleash its id and wax with unapologetic nostalgia about the good ole days of the Jim Crow South. Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia issued a proclamation declaring Confederate History Month with no mention of slavery. Rand Paul, when running successfully for senator of Kentucky, disparaged the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Haley Barbour, the former GOP chairman and Mississippi governor and almost presidential candidate, reminisced about how things were not “that bad” back when the segregationist White Citizens’ Councils were in charge of Yazoo City during his halcyon youth. Toss in such other uninhibited party leaders as Newt Gingrich, branding Obama “the best food-stamp president in American history,” and Karl Rove, who labeled the public-spirited rapper Common “a thug” when Obama invited him to a poetry evening at the White House, and you see why some white voters in Steubenville, Ohio, were happy to confide to a Times reporter this month that they wouldn’t be casting ballots for a black man.
But this renaissance of neo-Confederatism on the right is retro. We’ve been there, done that many times in the decades since Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” turned the party of Lincoln into a haven for the old Dixiecrats. What’s new in the Obama era are the less binary racial free-for-alls dramatized so vividly in Clybourne Park. Though some of these episodes have comic elements that seem like holdovers from The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s eighties satirical assault on liberal political correctness, they have become wackier in plot and boast a wider cast of characters: white conservatives and liberals, black conservatives and liberals, and a political-media Establishment that is more easily manipulated by racial provocateurs than at any time in recent memory.
The Sherrod case is an apt example. As you may recall, this sad tale began when the late Breitbart hyped a maliciously edited video of a speech she made at an NAACP gathering in Georgia. Sherrod seemed to be telling how she had discriminated against a white farmer. In the full version, we’d learn, she was instead offering a heartwarming account of how she overcame her historical racial grievances to help a white farmer out. That the rabid Breitbart would tar Sherrod was no surprise. That some in the mainstream press would recycle his libel without vetting it is, sadly, par for the course. But that the NAACP would also pile on, condemning Sherrod as “shameful” without even checking the record of an event it had sponsored, was nuts. So was the cowardly behavior of Tom Vilsack, the white secretary of Agriculture, who in a panic immediately forced Sherrod’s resignation, with the knowledge and tacit approval of the Obama White House.
What Breitbart understood was that the election of an African-American president has thrown white and black liberals on the defensive. The NAACP and Vilsack were so eager to appear color-blind in the new “post-racial” America that they would rather sell Sherrod out than wait for any facts that might alter the story. Once it became clear to Obama that his own camp had been snookered, he apologized to her and called for a discussion of race that “needs to take place not on cable TV, not just through a bunch of academic symposia or fancy commissions or panels, not through political posturing, but around kitchen tables, and water coolers, and church basements, and in our schools.” Whatever. There was no discussion of how the NAACP, the White House, and a Cabinet department were so easily enlisted in Breitbart’s assault on Sherrod in the first place. There were no repercussions for Vilsack, who remains in his sinecure today.
Breitbart, of course, isn’t the only one to wield a maliciously edited recording to serve a racial animus; his legacy is that he helped solidify an Obama-era trend. NBC News would do the same in the Trayvon Martin case, airing an audio recording on the Today show in which George Zimmerman seemed to profile his victim as black to a police dispatcher when in fact he was only responding to the dispatcher’s direct question (edited out by NBC). On the right, a website founded by the conservative pundit Michelle Malkin tried to stack the deck against Trayvon by posting a defamatory, racially stereotyped photo portrait that turned out to be of a different young black man. In a category of his own was Spike Lee, who tweeted an address he thought was Zimmerman’s to some 250,000 followers. How he wanted others to act on this information was unspecified, but in any event, the address actually belonged to an innocent white couple in their seventies who were forced to flee their home to escape a torrent of death threats and other harrassments. (Lee ultimately did the right thing, apologizing and agreeing to compensate them.)
Like the Sherrod incident, the Martin killing made almost everyone who touched it look bad, not just the derelict Floridian officials in proximity. The so-called liberal national media didn’t report on the case until three weeks after it happened. Once they started playing catchup, reporters and commentators alike flew into a tizzy trying to figure out how to shoehorn Zimmerman’s Hispanic ethnicity into the rigid black-vs.-white racial grid the narrative demanded. Conservative pundits tried to drown out the Martin tragedy altogether (and the role played by weak gun control and “stand your ground” laws in abetting it) by complaining vociferously that the mainstream press and black leaders habitually ignore America’s epidemic of black-on-black violence. For good measure, the original story was further muddied by debates over whether it was out of line for Obama to say he could have had a son who looked like Trayvon, whether hoodies should be banned (not for Mark Zuckerberg, apparently), and whether the Times was right to identify Zimmerman as a “white Hispanic” instead of simply a Hispanic. If there ever is justice in this case, which there may well not be, it will hardly be looked back on as a clarifying episode in the story of America’s struggle with race.
The Trayvon Martin mêlée, at least, was about something grave at its core: An unarmed 17-year-old boy had been killed, and law enforcement had failed to act. What was the Herman Cain presidential campaign about? As an indicator of present-day racial disingenuousness in America, this brief but delicious saga is hard to top. It’s the one recent national farce that delivers comedy as well as substance to match that of Clybourne Park. It offers something to embarrass everyone.
Let us not sugarcoat the central fact: Cain is a clown, if an entertaining one, who may well be a perfectly capable pizza marketer and motivational speaker but who had no more qualifications for the presidency than a Friars Club roastmaster. Yet no matter how unabashedly and frequently he advertised his own shortcomings, few had the temerity to say this short-lived emperor had no clothes—whether he was “joking” about building an electrified fence to stop illegal immigration, or reveling in his complete ignorance of foreign policy (from Libya to “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan”), or proposing economic panaceas that were a euphonic delight but otherwise as nonsensical as a pronouncement by Chauncey Gardiner in Being There.
The silence was notably conspicuous among those Republican and conservative leaders who saw in Cain a tool to portray the GOP as a more inclusive brand than the nearly all-white bastion it actually is. (Just 8 percent of blacks identify themselves as Republican, according to Pew.) The only time conservatives criticized Cain—accusing him of playing the “race card,” needless to say—was when he had the temerity to suggest that the “Niggerhead” sign at a hunting ranch leased by Rick Perry was “insensitive.” That daring bit of truth-telling on Cain’s part was soon forgiven and forgotten (including by Cain), and he was back to being hailed on the right as “a magnificent man” and “a great man,” in the words of Ann Coulter. His only real sin was “getting too uppity” for liberals, Rush Limbaugh explained helpfully. Once Cain started to reel from multiple accusations of sexual harassment, Coulter and her cohort eulogized him as Clarence Thomas redux—the blameless victim of a “high-tech lynching.” When Cain finally dropped out of the race, The Wall Street Journal editorial page faulted him not for his dubious personal behavior but for his inept public-relations management.
After the Herminator’s candidacy finally did implode under the weight of the aggrieved women coming forward (five proved to be the tipping point), his farcical journey through the entire racial spectrum of the presidential race came full circle. He went from being a figurative clown to a professional one, reemerging as a popular comic partner for white liberal comedians like Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, and John Oliver of The Daily Show, playing Richard Pryor to their Gene Wilder in delightful segments of neo-minstrelsy. Only in America! The GOP, meanwhile, liberated from its expedient shotgun marriage to a black front-runner, could return to its racial business-as-usual—its campaign to depress minority turnout on Election Day by pushing onerous new voting requirements in any state legislature they can.
Herman Cain could not have defeated Obama. Whether Republican efforts to curtail voter turnout can help do so is unknown. In retrospect, it’s not even clear whether Obama’s election in 2008 was a historic triumph of America over its racial legacy or a freak confluence of unlikely forces. Voters went to the polls just as the economy was crashing, and the only alternative to the black man was a crabby old white guy who didn’t seem to have a clue about what was going on.
The 2012 contest may be a more revealing indicator of the racial state of the union. Obama is running against the whitest man America could produce—a product of white states, white neighborhoods, and white institutions that include a church that didn’t give African-Americans full equal rights until 1978, well after the Old Confederacy had been forced to surrender to the new order of federal civil-rights laws. The new Census Bureau report that minority births have finally surpassed white births can only increase the demographic panic in a GOP that looks less and less like the electorate. No one should have been surprised to learn last week that one of the right’s billionaire sugar daddies was considering writing a $10 million check to support an ad campaign that would have exhumed the Reverend Jeremiah Wright in its plot to persuade America to “hate the president.”
Romney has declined invitations to see The Book of Mormon. It’s hard to imagine that he’d even recognize the historical context of Clybourne Park. Norris’s raucous comedy was inspired by a mostly somber (and seminal) Broadway drama of 1959, A Raisin in the Sun, by a young black woman, Lorraine Hansberry, then 28. (She would die at 34.) Her play has a single white character: Karl Lindner, the milquetoast emissary from the Clybourne Park neighborhood association who wants to bribe the black family, the Youngers, to prevent them from moving into their newly purchased house. The white man proves unable to buy what he wants. Raisin ends with the indelible image of the family matriarch, a domestic worker, walking out of her old home into a future that no one could foresee but that surely held more promise than the dead-end existence she is leaving behind.
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.