Broadway bound, but stopping in Philly first

The cast of "Clybourne Park" includes (from left) Steve Pacek, Erika Rose, and Josh Tower. The play, often funny, deals openly with race.
The cast of "Clybourne Park" includes (from left) Steve Pacek, Erika Rose, and Josh Tower. The play, often funny, deals openly with race. (MARK GARVIN)
Posted: January 31, 2012

Clybourne Park, a provocative and funny play about the way people discuss race - has become a magical stage property, its rapid trajectory unstoppable.

The play, set in the same Chicago house that figured in Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun, premiered just two years ago Off-Broadway, hit London 18 months ago, and then Washington. It got legs, as they say - and quickly - with recent productions in Toronto and Germany. In March, Clybourne Park won Britain's prestigious Olivier Award, in April the Pulitzer Prize. A production that opened in Los Angeles last week moves directly to Broadway in the spring.

But not before it opens here Wednesday night at the Arden Theatre Company.

How the Arden happens to be staging a new play now scheduled for Broadway, where power and big-money stakes could kill all other rights to it, isn't just a matter of who you know - although that's part of it.

Clybourne Park's author, Bruce Norris - also sometimes an actor (on Broadway, Biloxi Blues, in film, the stuttering teacher of The Sixth Sense) - has in the past worked closely with Ed Sobel, the Arden's associate artistic director who is directing the play here. In another connection, Norris and the Arden's leader, Terrence J. Nolen, both went to Northwestern University; Norris' Los Angeles roommate was Nolen's at another point.

Back then, "Bruce used to say he acted to pay the bills, so that he could write," Nolen remembers. Now Norris, 51, can write, it seems, whatever he likes - and he is about to hide out in Wyoming at a writers' retreat to finish two commissioned plays he's working on; he's just completed a third, for Lincoln Center.

As any artistic director will tell you, nailing down new plays before they're on the fast track takes more than connections. It's also about luck, and being electrified by a script. Bidding rights come into the picture, and so does timing; if your theater company is already committed to a season, another company in town may grab the play.

At the Arden, Nolen and Sobel became aware of Clybourne Park in different ways. The playwright offered it to Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, and Sobel, a dramaturg who worked with playwrights and directors there, attended a reading. Steppenwolf chose another Norris play, and Off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons ended up premiering Clybourne Park. Nolen got hold of the fresh script from Norris' agent, another longtime associate, two summers back and read it at home one Sunday morning. "You're always sort of aware what folks are working on," he says.

Clybourne Park is a riff on what might have happened before - and, in its second act, after - the plot of Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, "one of the very first plays I ever was exposed to when I was a kid," Norris says. To appreciate his play, you needn't know anything about Hansberry's, which involves a black family putting down money on a house in Chicago's all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood after World War II.

But knowing that one character in the first act and a minor discussion in the second act are directly related to Raisin makes Clybourne Park all the more rich. The first act takes place in the house that the black family in A Raisin in the Sun wants to buy. By the second act of Clybourne Park, the neighborhood has become a gentrifying middle-class black enclave, and a suburban white family is trying to buy the property.

"I was so struck by how elegant the writing is, so crisp," says Nolen, recalling his original reaction to the script. Norris is "so clear in setting up the history of the characters and the specificity of this place. It's diamond-sharp.

"And I couldn't believe how funny the play is. There were so many moments of, Oh! I can't believe they're saying that! I sat in my kitchen, laughing out loud."

Nolen committed to the play before it won the Pulitzer. "I was thrilled for both the potential impact on our production and on Bruce," Nolen says. Next, after the Broadway season had already begun, Clybourne Park was announced for Broadway this spring.

There have been examples, particularly with revivals, of Broadway producers clamping down on regional companies to ensure exclusive rights, but "we had a deal, we had a contract, and it was never of concern," says Nolen.

When the Broadway run became real, "I said you can't make other people doing the play stop doing it," despite its Broadway status, Norris says; a theater in Providence, R.I., also had a contract. "It's interesting," he notes, "Clybourne Park has become like a franchise, something like 7-Eleven or Wawa."

Sobel, too, e-mailed Norris before his play won the Pulitzer, saying the Arden would be interested: "He knows me and he has family in Philadelphia and he's familiar with the Arden.

"The play," says Sobel, "takes on some issues we are really reluctant to talk about in an open way, and we knew from reading it it was extremely funny - one of the great gifts of humor is that it's a way to open up people to accept ideas."

Both acts evolve into a discussion about race, with whites and blacks on stage at the same time. "Certainly, it gets us all in the same room together," says Norris, who is white. That discussion is particularly hilarious; audiences will recognize lines they've heard, or may have thought, and they well might be horrified even as they laugh.

"Bruce's plays are always dependent upon an audience's willingness to self-indict, and he can be very skillful in allowing room for that," says Sobel. Says Nolen: "He is steely."

For Norris' part, he agrees that Clybourne Park's discussions of race "are things that no one wants to say. But if we don't say them, we're left with only a kind of weird dance - and etiquette that doesn't get us anywhere."


Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or #philastage on Twitter.

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