A Visit to Clybourne Park: The Hansberry Connection

BY Deblina Chakraborty / POSTED May 25, 2012
Hammerbrook - City can this really be true?
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The play juxtaposes humor and drama as it addresses real-life racial tensions. (Photo credit: Nathan Johnson/Clybourne Park)

Sarah and I recently interviewed Pam MacKinnon, the director of Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer-winning play, “Clybourne Park.” This post is the second in a three-part series on the play, the historical research that went into it, and the connection to Lorraine Hansberry and her work, “A Raisin in the Sun.”

As readers, audience members — information consumers of any kind, really — we tend to identify most with material that feels authentic. And “Clybourne Park” is no exception. In our recent discussion with Pam MacKinnon, we touched a bit on the play’s tricky juxtaposition of humor and drama in regards to the real-life racial issues it addresses, and how audiences react to the ups and downs that go along with that. Some laugh a lot. Others, a little less. It really depends on the venue and who’s watching.

MacKinnon explained the different ways in which she works with actors to control the “tempo” of their performances, so that serious moments don’t get lost in the laughs. But that range of emotions audiences experience probably has something to do with the element of truth they find in Bruce Norris’ writing, too. The awkward moments are funny because they’re realistic, and the serious parts may be unsettling for the same reason. But in the case of the latter, some “Clybourne Park” fans may not know just how real the situations really are.

The issues of race and housing represented in the play take their inspiration from African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s, “A Raisin in the Sun,” which in turn takes its inspiration from Hansberry’s own life. Hansberry’s family moved to the then-all-white Chicago neighborhood of Washington Park in the late 1930s, when she was 8 years old. Neighbors tried to force them out legally by citing racially restrictive covenants that had been established in early 20th-century Chicago to keep neighborhoods segregated.

The long legal battle that followed culminated in the 1940 U.S. Supreme Court case Hansberry vs. Lee, in which turned out in the Hansberrys’ favor. But this result still didn’t end the violence and discrimination the Hansberrys had to endure in their community.

In its own way, “Clybourne Park” brings new light to these real-life issues, and also asks the question “Have things gotten any better?” It’s up to audiences to decide whether that’s the case.

Want a chance to attend a special HowStuffWorks evening of theatre May 31, plus learn more about the second act transformation in “Clybourne Park”? Check out the HowStuffWorks Twitter page for more details.

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