This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com
Bruce Norris’s savage satire Clybourne Park, a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic in 2010, centred on the impact on an exclusively white Chicago suburb of that name when a black family moves in in 1959. Therefore it makes a fascinating theatrical cross reference to now see this play, actually dating from 1959, which is set in a ghetto on Chicago’s South Side and shows a black family, presumably the one that Norris had in mind, in the course of buying a house in Clybourne Park. Lorraine Hansberry’s play is a beautifully constructed work of traditional mid-20th Century theatre, rich with human emotion and the humour arising from everyday life. It also stands as a major landmark in the history of the American Civil Rights movement. Recently widowed, Lena Younger shares her cramped apartment with her restless son Walter, her idealistic daughter Beneatha and Walter’s wife and young son. Lena’s $10,000 insurance pay-out offers the opportunity for Walter to start a business, for Beneatha to study medicine and for the whole family to make that move to Clybourne Park. Latanya Richardson Jackson’s Lena is a fierce but loving matriarch, upholding Christian family values above all else. There are times when her performance dominates this production, upstaging even Denzel Washington who captures to perfection Walter’s frustration and uncertainty in balancing family responsibilities with personal ambitions. He proves to be an actor with the power, range and charisma to command the stage as much as he does the big screen. The strains placed upon Walter’s marriage to Ruth (a fine portrayal by the British actress Sophie Okonedo) are central to the play, but Hansberry uses the developing relationship between Beneatha and her Nigerian suitor Joseph for expressing many of her progressive ideas. Anika Noni Rose’s Beneatha is a naive optimist set on discovering her African roots, whilst Sean Patrick Thomas’s Joseph is a grounded pragmatist and it is to him that the play’s keynote speech, arguably one of the greatest in American drama, falls. He talks of the challenges of equating dreams with reality and of a future in which solutions to problems can never be seen, but in which change will be slow and almost imperceptible. The prescience of Hansberry’s writing, here and throughout the play, is remarkable and it brings home the extent of the tragedy of her early death at the age of just 35. Kenny Leon’s production is sharply focussed and adorned by many delightful humorous touches, whilst Mark Thompson’s carefully detailed set reflects the make-do lifestyle of a poverty line household. Judging by the loud reactions of an ethnically mixed New York audience, the play’s observations on race issues still hit raw nerves, but it would be wrong to see it as being solely about race. The struggles of a working family to hold itself together and maintain standards of decency, whilst combatting life’s challenges, are universal and resonate just as strongly more than half a century after Hansberry’s play first appeared. The Obamas have already seen and publicly given their seal of approval to this production. It is appropriate that they should have done so, because it feels throughout as if it is the definitive modern day interpretation of a towering American classic. Completely unforgettable.
Performance date: 30 April 2014