by Matthew Falduto
Cedar Rapids – I love spaces like the Grandon Studio. It’s a wonderfully intimate space that allows Theatre Cedar Rapids to present lesser known shows that might not sell out the huge auditorium located above. Shows like for colored girls… and Doubt, not to mention the annual Underground New Play Festival, play better in an intimate space like the Grandon Studio. Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, a thought provoking play about race, is a perfect Grandon Studio show.
Clybourne Park is a bit of a spin off of the classic play, A Raisin the Sun. In that show, set in the late 1950s, an African American family named the Youngers has just bought a house in a white neighborhood. A racist man, Karl Lindner, attempts to buy them off to keep them from moving into his neighborhood. They refuse and the play ends with them leaving for their new home.
Norris’ play opens in the home the Youngers have bought as the current owners, Russ and Bev, are in the process of packing their things. The action really gets going when Karl Lindner, the one character from A Raisin in the Sun who also appears in Clybourne Park, arrives. He wants them to scuttle the sale of the house so the Youngers can’t move in. In the second act of the play, set in current time, everything is flipped as a Caucasian family wants to move into the house, which is now in a predominantly African American neighborhood. All but one of the actors play different characters in each act.
Tierra Plowden is the picture of strength in both acts. Her second act character was flashier and more exciting to watch, particularly when she challenges Lane’s character, but her work in act one as housekeeper Francine is where she truly showed her acting skills. The subtle strength she emanated as Francine was carefully constructed with body posture and telegraphed with an expressive face. She was completely present in the scene even when she had no lines.
While Rezabeck was wonderful in act one as her character struggled to do the right thing in a world with blatant institutionalized racism, she was perhaps even better in act two, where she showed her comedic chops, delivering funny line after line with expert timing. Rob Merritt’s characters were both somewhat outside of the central dramas of the two acts, but he did excellent supporting work, and ably provided comic relief in act one. Joshua Raheim was particularly strong at the end of act one, delivering a devastatingly honest line to Rezabeck, who again showed her acting chops by wilting and then rising back up to respond.
I’ve spent a lot of words explaining the nuts and bolts of this theatre production, but the fact is it’s the emotional intensity that the actors bring to every moment that makes this is a show worth experiencing. I was blown away by so many powerful moments… from Smith’s riveting and emotional outburst toward the end of act one to the intense standoff between Lane and Plowden’s characters over a racist joke in act two. This play makes you squirm in your seat as you listen to the characters attempt to navigate the still choppy waters of our racial divide. But you know, we need to squirm. We need to think about these issues. I am sure Clybourne Park created a lot of conversations in the car on the way home. And that’s what good theatre is all about. Kudos to TCR for producing such an important show. Don’t miss it.