A Visit to Clybourne Park: This Old House

BY Sarah Dowdey / POSTED May 22, 2012
Hammerbrook - City can this really be true?
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Clybourne Park The first act 1959 set of “Clybourne Park” goes through a dramatic transformation in act two. (Photo credit: Nathan Johnson/Clybourne Park)

Deblina and I recently interviewed Pam MacKinnon, the director of Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer-winning play, “Clybourne Park.” This post is the first 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.”

It might be obvious from the name, but “Clybourne Park” is as much about the house as it is about the characters struggling to communicate inside. The solid, middle-class bungalow connects the newer play to Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” since characters from that earlier play — the African-American Younger family — are about to move in when “Clybourne Park” opens. It’s the physical representation of aspiration and decline. And, when the cozy 1959 home of the first act transforms into a derelict, graffitied 2009 teardown in the second, it’s a single example of the extreme socioeconomic shifts that take place over 50 years.

Consequently, director Pam MacKinnon wanted the experience of looking into that house — both in its lived-in and abandoned states — to be what she described as “voyeuristic.” Part of that effect comes from the head-on view of the set: In the first act, the audience sees the cluttered, box-filled sitting room of Russ and Bev, who are in the process of moving out. In the second act, it’s the same exact set, this time filled with new buyers, but its doors have been switched out or removed, wallpapers patterns have changed and burglar bars cover windows.

Making the design historically accurate involved looking far beyond the dates of the two acts, however. MacKinnon explained to us how set designer Daniel Ostling worked to make Russ and Bev’s home “a period setting, but a lived-in period setting.” Everything wasn’t exactly contemporary. Their wallpaper was early ’50s style; their furniture wasn’t quite new. Russ and Bev aren’t particularly stylish, either: MacKinnon said, “We didn’t want a Modernist family.”

The eclecticism of the first act turns into a hodgepodge in the second. A jumble of ’70s floral wallpapers clash; woodwork has been painted over; a steel door bars the back entrance. MacKinnon said she wanted the audience to think not only of the Younger family, who lived there for years after Russ and Bev, but the people who came after them, and the 15 years when the home was abandoned. She wanted people to wonder, “How many hands has this house passed through, and when were the moments when they upgraded?” Even the tiniest details can help signify those moments — MacKinnon described Ostling presenting her with photos of three ’80s-era thermostats and allowing her “the delicious decision” of picking out the one she liked best.

Of course, very few people get to see the period details that make Ostling’s set so convincing up close and personal. If you’d like 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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