“I like smart actors,” Eric Ting says. He’s discussing the new production of the drama Clybourne Park he’s directing for the Long Wharf Theater. The show begins previews tonight, has its opening night May 15, and runs through June 2.
Clybourne Park, one of the most produced plays of this theater season nationwide, requires smart actors. The script, which won a Pulitzer Prize for playwright Bruce Norris, is a deft mix of dialogue and diatribe, of outreach and outrage. Attempts to defuse tensions actually aggravate them. A spate of joke-telling, some of it in very bad taste, challenges both the actors and the audience.
If smart actors are essential, so is a smart director. Ting, who’s been with Long Wharf for nearly a decade as the theater’s Associate Artistic Director, has distinguished himself by bringing complexity and psychological depth to plays where some other directors might deliver only cheap stereotypes. The Long Wharf production Ting did which comes closest to the racial and social themes of Clybourne Park might be the stage adaptation of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which was presented at both Long Wharf and Hartford Stage in 2008. That play concerned African-American families whose life goals have been dashed by the limited opportunities available to them in a Midwestern American city in the mid-20th century.
Clybourne Park concerns a white couple, moving into what for decades has been a largely African-American neighborhood. They have proposed extravagant renovations to the house they’ve purchased, and some of the neighbors have concerns.
But that’s just the play’s second act. The first act has the same actors playing other roles—in some cases, ancestors of the characters they’ll play in Act Two—and depicting a time in the late 1950s when that same house had white owners who chose to sell their home to a black family. In this act, it’s white neighbors who are concerned about the cultural, social and economic impact of the house changing hands.
One of the many clever touches in Norris’s play is that the family which is buying the house in Act One is not shown and is only referred to offhandedly, but is revealed to be the family from one of the great classics of American theater, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. That 1959 drama is about a family, the Youngers, dreaming of escaping poverty and dead-end jobs as they grow closer to moving from the South Side to a different, predominantly white section of the city. A minor character, the racist Karl Lindner, who offers a large sum of money to the Youngers if they change their minds about moving to the white neighborhood, reappears in Clybourne Park’s first act spouting the same bigotry-fueled concerns about desegregation.
The Westport Country Playhouse presented A Raisin in the Sun last year and joined the Long Wharf in helping interested audience members get a chance to see both plays, through special discounts and cross-promotions. Leroy McClain, who plays Albert and Kevin in the Long Wharf’s Clybourne Park, starred in A Raisin in the Sun just last month at the Huntington Theater in Boston.
In most regional theaters around the country, it’s common to produce recent New York hits as soon as the rights to those plays are made available. That programming strategy rarely happens in New Haven, where Broadway is just a commuter-rail ride away. The Long Wharf and Yale Rep are more inclined to send new shows into New York. But both Eric Ting and Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein have both said that this play speaks so strongly to communities like New Haven that they simply couldn’t resist doing it. “Gordon wanted to do this play for New Haven,” Ting says. As director, he says, “I’m trying to pay respect to that choice.”
“Many plays these days are wrestling with issues of race,” Ting says. “Clybourne Park brings in issues of gentrification, property, real estate… which, in this city, seem to be at the heart of the conversation.” Ting mentions everything from New Haven’s “model city” urban renewal overhaul of the 1950s and ’60s to the Long Wharf’s own (now abandoned) plans to move downtown after 45 years on Sargent Drive as local factors which may affect how New Haveners view the situations in Clybourne. He mentions a controversial report by the NAACP which dubbed New Haven’s racial and class inequality issues “Urban Apartheid.” Ting himself has an apartment in New Haven’s multi-ethnic Dwight/Edgewood neighborhood, and declares that “there are ways to imagine Bruce Norris’s play set in New Haven with very few changes. That’s what has made this play accessible to audiences throughout the country.” He also notes that Norris expressly meant for Clybourne Park to be seen by the overwhelmingly white middle-class audiences which make up the subscription bases of most U.S. regional theaters. “This is the audience that Bruce has written the play for. It’s intending to skewer middle-class white identity. There’s always something in it that will make that audience uncomfortable.”
That said, the Long Wharf is trying to broaden the audience by nominating “community ambassadors”—prominent citizens from the African-American and other communities—who attended a dress rehearsal of the show earlier this week and will be given tickets to bring guests to future performances and post-show “talkback” discussions.
To further help New Haven appreciate the issues explored in the play, the Long Wharf is holding a series of “community conversations” through the new “Stage. Page. Engage.” program it’s started with New Haven Free Public Library. Ting will be present at each discussion, which will also feature New Haven historians and other guests, plus scenes from the play read aloud by local actors—different performers than are in the Long Wharf production. The talks are 1 p.m. May 18 at Stetson Branch Library with local attorney Clifton Graves and journalist Tom Ficklin; 6 p.m. May 20 at Mitchell Branch Library with Ficklin and historian Colin Caplan; 6 p.m. May 28 at Wilson Branch Library with Caplan; and 1 p.m. June 1 at Fair Haven Branch Library with Ficklin and Caplan again.
“There are a lot of conversations to be had around the attitudes of these characters,” Ting says. “It’s a crucible for our own belief systems. It really is a genius play.”
Long Wharf Theatre – 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven (map)
May 8 through June 2, $42-$72. Visit www.longwharf.org/clybourne-park or call (203) 787-4282 for more details.
Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.