If you question whether the discussion of Chicago's racist history can still cause shivers among modern-day Chicago theatergoers, you need only watch what happens at the Steppenwolf Theatre in the first act of Bruce Norris' searing play "Clybourne Park." Quite often there are moments in theater when an audience, suddenly brought to attention, falls quiet. But the silence that suddenly descends at Steppenwolf when a white seller of a house in 1959 asks the simple question, "Well what sort of people are they?" is something else entirely. It is the silence that comes only with fear and recognition.
You hear sharp intakes of breath, see a few heads spin around to discreetly check the racial composition of the audience, and then there's a kind of palpable dread of what's coming, even though the tawdry history of race, real-estate and Chicago — the stories of "turned neighborhoods," violence, expressways constructed as lines of racial demarcation, rapid flights to Glen this or Elm that — has been amply recounted in numerous volumes.
We're still less than a single lifespan removed from the issues that the late Lorraine Hansberry wrote of in 1959 with her seminal Chicago drama "A Raisin in the Sun." When revealed, or re-revealed, with the skill that Norris re-reveals them in "Clybourne Park" — both a riff on and a chronological expansion of "Raisin" — they still are raw. Superficially, the dilemma of the Youngers, a black family that wants nothing more than the right to live where it wants to live, has been solved. The Youngers could probably do that now. But you only have to drive down one of the streets around Steppenwolf, one of the streets that, strangely, does not go through, to see how little, as well as how much, has changed.
Even through Steppenwolf has premiered almost all of Norris' work — he would not have a career as a writer without this theater — "Clybourne Park," which won this year's Pulitzer Prize in drama, arrives belatedly in Chicago (it opened Sunday night under Amy Morton's restrained and carefully wrought direction, and featured unstinting performances from John Judd and Karen Aldridge) with a past in New York and London, and a formidable advance reputation. Another, separate production is headed to Broadway later this season. "Clybourne Park" is everywhere, but, mark, nowhere else is it playing within a few steps of Clybourne Avenue. The aspirational white neighborhood in "Raisin" was fictional; but that one word, "Clybourne," was a pretty good indication of the locale in Hansberry's mind. And the play is being performed right at its artery. Designer Todd Rosenthal's house is, to say the least, recognizable, although a bit too nice to knock down.
"Clybourne Park" is a masterful work for various reasons. Its referents back to the Hansberry play are as inspired as they are logical. Act 1 of the Norris play is set, at precisely the same moment, in the very house where Hansberry's Youngers want to move. Norris focuses on the white family (a couple, played by Judd and Kirsten Fitzgerald) moving out to the suburbs, and the attempts of those in their neighborhood to prevent the sale of the house to a black family. Norris' conceit is that no one realized the race of the buyers until the eleventh hour, which, given the well-documented tactics of some of the fear-mongering real-estate agents of the era, is entirely credible.
Karl Lindner (Cliff Chamberlain), the notorious representative of the "resident's association" who shows up at the South Side door of the buyers in the Hansberry play only to be rebuffed, has now come to dissuade the sellers from making the sale, which also makes perfect sense. Norris proffers a couple of equally inspired solutions to the issues that "Raisin" raises but does not really explore. He suggests that the white sellers didn't care about selling to a black family because they had their own reasons to hate their community — and maybe they weren't alone, and maybe that's why communities like the one they lived in fractured — and he comes up with a reason as to how Lena Younger got the cheaper house that made her move possible.
Act 2 is set in 2009 in the same Clybourne Park. Now a white family wants to move into what has become a predominantly black neighborhood. Well, "move in" isn't the best expression. It wants to tear down the house and build a McMansion (in 2009, Norris just got in under the recessionary wire for that to be credible). This time, the existing black residents aren't pleased. Echoes of the past — descendants of the previous generations, victims of race wars from one side or another — are everywhere, despite new language and carefully negotiated intimacies. Double-casting reveals many resonances. And yet at the heart of the play is another American agony that perhaps has nothing to do with the color of anyone's skin.
And that's why this is Norris' best play. Steppenwolf audiences are familiar with his satirical skills, his ease with lampooning urban liberals with kids and SUVs and revealing the hypocrisy behind their trips to Whole Foods — their raw ambition, their fevered, dysfunctional souls. But "Clybourne Park" goes a great deal farther. Simply put, it understands and explicates the roots of hate in fear. There is nothing smug or distant or cheap about the authorial voice: It is compassionate and it takes responsibility, even as it is relentless in its peeling of the racial onion, down to its fetid core.
Morton's cast doesn't immediately kick into gear. Fitzgerald and Chamberlain offer relatively broad characterizations — Fitzgerald layers her work with a kind of 1950s gauze — that take time to grab hold, but they surely wield some power (Fitzgerald is best in the second act; Chamberlain in the first). Stephanie Childers, who play's Karl's wife, and then a buyer, is fine throughout. So is Brendan Marshall-Rashid, in both acts a weasely hanger-on, and the subtly self-effacing James Vincent Meredith, who plays two African-American men who seem to have very different stations in life, and yet who both find themselves constantly having to calm others down.
But this production is rightly dominated by Judd, who plays the wound-tight seller escaping to the suburbs, where he hopes he can uncoil. Judd paints a formidable picture of a bitter, angry man whose sense of community has been up-ended and who smells both revenge and misery. And there is no other Chicago actress who can convey the weight of moral authority quite like Aldredge, even when, as the years of the play go by, she finds herself moving from playing a black maid, looking to keep the lid on a white tinderbox, to a richer, more powerful, more assertive woman, stuck on the other side of a still-yawning divide. And probably no happier.