'Clybourne Park' at Yellow Tree Theatre

It’s easy to see why Clybourne Park has become such a popular show for regional theatres: The Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning show is contemporary, provides challenging roles for actors, and is emotionally charged. But despite its nationwide acclaim, Clybourne Park has its share of flaws. Under the direction of Craig Johnson, Clybourne Park at Yellow Tree Theatre manages to embrace its imperfections to explore its resonant themes.

The play opens in 1959 with a couple in the midst of a chaotic move out of their white middle-class Chicago neighborhood, unaware that a black family has bought their house. The second act moves to 2009 with new characters, played by the same actors, in what becomes a heated argument about gentrification and the meaning of community.     

Bruce Norris wrote Clybourne as a response to the American classic A Raisin in the Sun. But where it falls short is its edgy, but what feels like a predominately white, conversation about race. The two acts are unevenly tied together only by setting, and by a white family’s tragedy, but not by tone. In the first act, the African-American characters are rarely given a chance to speak, evocative of the time period. And although the African-American characters become more central characters with cutting dialogue in the second act, it still feels like a show about the white characters’ problems first and foremost, with the ending tying back to the white family’s tragedy of the first act.

Through intense arguments and wit in the second act, the show makes us laugh at the need to shop at places like Whole Foods, well-meaning liberalism, and at how overly politically correct our society has become. But while we’re laughing at ourselves, are we learning anything substantial about the complicated issue of race or even of gentrification? With no real resolution to the questions Clybourne Park presents, the second act begins to feel like a loud, well-acted, half-argument.

For an actor, Clybourne Park offers the chance to play two roles, and Johnson’s cast delivers the complexities of imperfect characters that inhabit this single Chicago living room. Ashley Rose Montondo carries the smoothest transformation, playing the deaf Betsy and hearing Lindsey, making one wonder for a second if it is the same actress. An understated performance by Patrick Coyle bears the emotional weight of the first act on his ready shoulders, bringing necessary subtleties to the character of Russ. An expressive Ricardo Beaird displays equal eloquence through the difficult and humorous parts of Albert and Kevin. Throughout, emotionally charged performances leaven the heaviness with humor.

The Guthrie offered a staging of Clybourne Park in 2013, but the smaller-scale venue at Yellow Tree offers Norris’ show at its full potential. While the inherent flaws of Clybourne Park are easier to hide at larger venues, Clybourne Park feels like a stronger show in a small venue—the audience, sitting only 10 feet away from the Yellow Tree stage, becomes a part of that Chicago living room. It’s a double-edged sword: The intimacy makes Clybourne Park into a bolder and more personal show, but it also makes the undeveloped ideas the show introduces more evident.

But as the Minneapolis-St. Paul community was recently ranked one of the worst cities for African American equality, even the show’s most problematic ideas can be good, maybe leading us to talk about the issues in our own communities. Pushed by complicated dramatic performances and sublime direction, at Yellow Tree Theatre, Clybourne Park is as relevant as can be, here in the Twin Cities.

Clybourne Park
By Bruce Norris
Directed by Craig Johnson
When: Feb. 5 – March 6, 2016
Where: Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 Fifth Ave. SE, Osseo
Featuring: Laura Esping, Patrick Coyle, Ashley Rose Montondo, Jason Peterson, Dan Hopman, Ricardo Beaird, Vincent Hannam and Joetta Wright
Tickets available at yellowtreetheatre.com