In Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play, "A Raisin in the Sun," a black family yearns for a better future — one of economic prosperity and home ownership.
After the Younger family puts down money on a house in an all-white Chicago neighborhood, a man visits with a generous offer to buy them out. The plot was directly influenced by the experience of Hansberry's parents in the 1930s, who went up against racially restrictive covenants to move into a white neighborhood.
Bruce Norris' Pulitzer Prize-winning "Clybourne Park" picks up where "Raisin" left off, visiting the white couple just after they sell their house to the Youngers. As anyone who has a passing familiarity with Richmond's ballpark debate knows, the intersection of race, class and property is a hornets' nest of controversy, and Cadence Theatre Company isn't shy of kicking.
It's 1959, and Russ and Bev (David Bridgewater and Katie McCall) are in the midst of packing when they're flooded by visitors — including Karl Linder (Andrew Firda), the man who made the buyout offer to the Youngers. Bridgewater erupts onstage in the volcanic way that only he seems capable of achieving, and McCall perfectly plays the '50s housewife who just can't take it anymore.
The ensuing conversation about race and community is made even more uncomfortable because the couple's black maid, Francine, and her husband, Albert (Tyra D. Robinson and Thomas E. Nowlin), are kept onstage. Their discomfort becomes our discomfort, and as we watch events as they would have unfolded 55 years ago, it's easy to see the racism in keeping a neighborhood segregated.
But Norris doesn't let the audience off the hook. The play's second act takes place in the same house — but in 2009. The Younger family was the first of a tide of black families to move to the neighborhood, which is being gentrified. Phil Hayes' morphing living room set has been covered with graffiti, and an affluent white couple wants to demolish the house and start over.
As they meet with a black couple representing a neighborhood organization, the conversation quickly devolves into a heated argument about racial issues. The humor stings as the characters move closer to present-day conversations of race and class. The dialogue has progressed in America, and racism is a more slippery practice than trying to ban a group of people from moving in next door.
The ensemble of actors does great work, and Keri Wormald's direction makes the show's humor and overlapping dialogue flow seamlessly. McLean Jesse's outrage as Lindsey in the second act is hilarious, and Richmond newcomer Andrew Firda is impressive as her socially inept husband, Steve.
Wormald's direction has the audience agree with and then dismiss the opinions of practically every character onstage in the second act, driving home the point that issues such as gentrification are more complex than simple good or evil.
With "Clybourne Park," Cadence has created an admirable and impressive work that stands on the pulse of the country's views on race relations. Given the local ballpark debate, it couldn't have better timing. S
"Clybourne Park" plays through March 15 at Virginia Rep Center. For information, call 282-2620 or visit va-rep.org.