Clybourne Park is both brilliant funny and thought-provoking as it explores racial tensions in Chicago lead by a firecracker cast.
Bruce Norris’s play of two halves opens in 1959, when we meet Russ, masterfully played by Mark Womack, and Bev (Rebecca Manley), who are moving following the tragic death of their son, who committed suicide in the house on returning from the Korean war. A white family with a black maid, the scene is set as various acquaintances drop by, including the obnoxious Karl (Ben Deery) who arrives with his deaf wife, Betsy, played by the very funny Rebecca Oldfield, to voice concerns over the black family he has learned are buying the house. Made particularly excruciating is that he airs much of his concerns in front of the black maid, Francine (Gloria Onitiri), and her husband, Albert (Wole Sawyerr).
Fast forward 50 years and the clever set transports us to 2009, when roles are reversed and the now largely black community of Clybourne Park is contesting the property plans of a white couple moving into the neighbourhood. The same cast plays completely different, contrasting characters in which the shy Francine from the first act becomes the no-nonsense, provocative Lena (Gloria Onitiri), while new resident Steve (Ben Deery) leads a scene of increasingly outrageous racist jokes, almost duelling with Lena’s husband Kevin (Wole Sawyerr), that evokes a roar of laughter from the audience as the scene becomes seat-squirmingly shocking.
While filled with laughs, the courageous play addresses some uncomfortable prejudices that we learn are still relevant today. Brought to a beautifully touching end with the presence of the young man who committed suicide in the 1950s, represented in the second act with a trunk we see in the first part of the play, in which his final letter to his parents is kept, the audience is left feeling as if nothing has really changed at all in this very poignant finale.
Clybourne Park plays at the Mercury Theatre in Colchester until 23rd April before it embarks on a UK tour. Visit www.mercurytheatre.co.uk to buy tickets.
Images: Robert Day