'Clybourne Park' at Geva explores topic of race

05:00 AM, Feb 09, 2014

Daniel Morgan Shelley and Jessica Kitchens star in Geva Theatre's production of Clybourne Park. (CHRIS HOLDEN/ / Photo provided by Geva)/


Written By Caurie Putnam

If you go

What:
Clybourne Park.
When: Tuesday through March 9, with preview performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. Saturday. The official opening is at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Blvd.
Cost: $25 and up.
Tickets: (585) 232-4382 or gevatheatre.org.

At its heart, Clybourne Park is a play about how we talk about things — or don’t.

The entire play is about how we talk about big subjects like race, class and economics,” says Jessica Kitchens, who will be in Geva Theatre Center’s production of the play, which opens Tuesday. “They are not easy things to talk about and there is intense detail with the language in the script because of it.”

Clybourne Park, which ran on Broadway in 2012, is the only play in history to win the coveted “Triple Crown” of theater — an Olivier Award, Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize.

Storywise, it could be a good play or not a good play,” says director Mark Cuddy, of the show written by Bruce Norris that tackles the controversial issue of gentrification. “But the reason it won the Pulitzer is the sharpness of the dialogue; it is stunningly honest and outrageous.”

In the first act, it is 1959 and a Chicago house is sold to an African-American couple — the Younger family of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which Geva produced in 2012. The action causes an uproar in the all-white neighborhood.

In the second act, it’s 2009 in the same house — just bought by a white couple riding the wave of gentrification of the neighborhood.

The house is another character,” Cuddy said. “You see an evolution of the house over 50 years.”

Because the dialogue is key to the story, casting of the play can prove difficult.

It was hard to find people who could do both 1959 and 2009,” Cuddy says. “They needed great range.”

He thinks he has found them, though, in eight actors who each play two roles, one in each act.

The script is so detailed that Cuddy likens it to directing an orchestra.

The script is like a score,” Cuddy says. “It is intricately set up, and the language is incredibly important to these characters. There are layers upon layers of language; it’s so rich.”

Peppered with satire and provocation, the dialogue will at times surprise the audience, Cuddy says.

He says, the audience may think, “Oh my God, he didn’t just say that out loud did he?”

During the show, the audience will be surprised at some points, feel awkward at some points, laugh hysterically at some points, and feel ashamed they laughed at some points,” says cast member Daniel Morgan Shelley. “The show is really a crucible for the audience.”

Shelley’s 1959 role is the husband of a maid. His 2009 role is a member of the homeowners’ association.

In 1959, Albert has a couple of lines that play with the temperature of the room, but they’re a little covert,” says Shelley, a Chicago native who now lives in New York City and is making his Geva debut. “In 2009, Kevin says whatever he wants. A black man was in a very different world in 1959 versus 2009, especially in the company of Caucasian people.”

Because of the thought-provoking nature of the play, Geva is hosting a series of communitywide discussions and post-show conversations on the topics that Clybourne Park addresses.

Information and a schedule of events for “Theatre and Race: A Community Conversation,” which also offers discussions on other plays through April 27, can be found at gevatheatre.org.