What happens to a dream deferred? That's the provocative question Langston Hughes chose to open his 1951 poem, "Harlem."
"Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?" Hughes goes on to ask, positing various alternatives before arriving at the final italicized line that might almost be a threat: "Or does it explode?"
Eight years after the publication of "Harlem," playwright Lorraine Hansberry borrowed from Hughes' poem when she published a largely autobiographical play about a black family hoping to move from Chicago's dilapidated south side to the more affluent and whiter Woodlawn neighborhood, and the racism the family confronts in the process. She titled the work, "A Raisin in the Sun."
More than 50 years later, playwright Bruce Norris used Hansberry's work as the launchpad for his "Clybourne Park," a tragicomic two-act play set in that same Woodlawn neighborhood but split in time between the 1950s and the early 20th century.
Palo Alto Players' current production gathers a talented cast under the direction of Jeanie Smith to tackle the seething tensions and countless bigotries betrayed by both whites and blacks, men and women, the middle and the working classes, then and now. The gift of "Clybourne Park" is in the reminder that the habit of us-versus-them thinking lies deep in our human marrow; the play's weakness is its vain attempt to reveal the rottenness at the core of every last bone.
As Act One opens, white married couple Bev (Betsy Kruse Craig) and Russ (Todd Wright) are preparing to move out of their suburban house. He sits in an armchair in khakis and a pajama shirt eating ice cream from the carton while she flits about, alternately nagging him and directing the hired help, Francine (Damaris Divito).
Over the course of the first act, this strained but controlled domestic scene slowly devolves from tension into chaotic conflict thanks to a series of interruptions: an inconvenient phone call, an unexpected visitor, an increasingly antagonistic conversation about race, and finally, the searingly painful memory of Bev and Russ' son, a Korean War veteran who was accused of military misconduct and killed himself sometime after his service.
At the scene's climax, the gloves come off, and the faster the insults fly, the more still Francine becomes, until the stage resembles a whirlpool, with the young black woman and her husband, Albert (Fred Pitts) standing in silence center stage, hands folded and heads bowed as the white folk circle dizzyingly around them, spitting threats at each other.
"I am ashamed of every one of us," Bev eventually says to Francine and Albert. It's an irrelevant offering, as unwanted as the chafing dish she tries to unload on them.
In under an hour, Norris has introduced just about every flavor of bigotry there is: racism, sexism, classism, religious intolerance, prejudice against those with developmental disabilities and those with mental illness. Confronted with narrow-mindedness at every turn, audience members will likely find themselves empathizing with Francine and Albert: helplessly stuck in the middle of a mess.
Post-intermission, the curtain rises on the same living room, but transformed (thanks to scenic designer Patrick Klein): the walls covered in graffiti, the floors and lintels littered with empty bottles. It's 2009, and a young white couple has purchased the run-down property in what is now a predominantly black neighborhood. It's immediately evident that though the times and the characters have changed, the actors remain the same; the meddling neighbor and his pregnant wife from 1959 (Michael Rhone and Kelly Rinehart) now play the new homeowners; Divito and Pitts play Lena and Kevin, members of the neighborhood association who object to the height of the architectural plans for the remodel. Craig now plays the white couple's lawyer, Wright the construction worker who barges in at inopportune moments in the negotiation. Once again, what begins as a pressurized but contained scene soon spirals out of control as characters unveil their prejudices in sharp dialogue delivered with Albee-esque savagery. This time, though, there are gestures toward deeper questions. In an impassioned monologue, speaking a little too emphatically as if she knows she won't be understood, Lena speaks of her connection to the neighborhood, invoking " ... my history and my parents' history ... there's just a lot of pride, and a lot of memories in these houses, and for some of us, that connection still has value ..."
Yet like the questions Hughes raises in "Harlem," Lena's plea for a discussion about values goes largely unanswered; the fractured dialogue soon sinks to the level of racist jokes and flat-out name calling.
The clever casting of dual roles does much to convey the enduring nature of racism and gives the actors a chance to attack the theme from multiple angles. Both as Lena and as Francine, Divito nails the thinly-veiled resentment of her black female characters who find themselves repeatedly ignored and interrupted, while Rhone makes both of his characters deliciously dislikable for their myopic white man's privilege.
Only one actor in this production is tasked with three roles: Casey Robbins plays the well-intentioned but hapless 1950s minister, then the lawyer for the neighborhood association, and finally, Kenneth, the son of Bev and Russ, who appears in the play's final moments in a flashback. Sitting in the living room in his military uniform in the early morning, he begins to write his suicide note, only to be interrupted by Bev, who flutters around, utterly oblivious to her son's plight, before returning to bed.
By framing the play with Kenneth's suicide, Norris implies there can be no happy ending to this endless story of the ways we reject and fail one another. Leavened though it is by zinging one-liners and delivered here by a uniformly strong cast, "Clybourne Park" is likely to send viewers home with a sense of hopelessness. Like Hughes' "Harlem," Norris' play offers little in the way of redemption. The only choice, it seems, is that between a festering sore and a heavy load.
What: "Clybourne Park," presented by Palo Alto Players
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through Nov. 22. Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.
Info: Go to paplayers.org or call 650-463-4900.