'Clybourne Park' examines race relations in America

In Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 family drama “A Raisin in the Sun,” a “Negro” family moves from their Southside Chicago ghetto to a new house in fictional all-white enclave Clybourne Park, despite the oh-so-polite objections of a “welcoming” committee.

Bruce Norris’ multiaward-winning “Clybourne Park” doesn’t exactly pick up where Hansberry’s play left off, but there are many connections, including the house itself, which is essentially another character in the play.

However, whether you discern those links or not is unimportant. Norris’ comedy — for it is indeed a laughfest — stands on its own as a cleverly structured examination of racism in America in the past half-century, seen through the prism of real estate.

Its West Coast premiere at American Conservatory Theater features an impressively synchronized ensemble performance under Jonathan Moscone’s tight, detailed direction.

In Act 1, set in 1959, a white couple — morose Russ (a potent, low-key Anthony Fusco) and his smiling, chattering wife, Bev (Rene Augesen, hilarious and touching as a barely contained bundle of nerves) — are packing to move, eager to leave certain painful memories behind.

But when a neighbor, Karl (Richard Thieriot, bursting with smarmy bonhomie), arrives to complain that the real estate agent, unbeknownst to Russ and Bev, has sold their house to a “colored” family, a nastily escalating argument ensues.

Hovering uneasily in the background are the black maid (Omozé Idehenre) and her husband (Gregory Wallace).

Act 2 opens in 2009 in the same house, now graffitied, a plastic tarp covering one wall (handsomely realistic set by Ralph Funicello). Since this house was sold to a black family in Act 1, the neighborhood — “one house at a time,” as predicted by Karl — went from white to black and now has, as one character says, a “charmingly ethnic distribution.”

A white couple (Thieriot again, with Emily Kitchens) has bought the house and wants to enlarge it, but a neighborhood group, organized by a local black couple (Wallace and Idehenre), objects. The neighborhood, they say, should retain its original, low-rise integrity.

All the fraught issues that intersect, however obliquely, with the ever-present race issue in America — gentrification, political correctness, classism, bleeding-heart liberalism, even war — surface as the thin veneer of a civilized neighborly discussion devolves into a screaming match.

Bits of story and dialogue ricochet back and forth across the 50-year gap in ways that are poignant and ironic. Above all, Norris’ uncomfortable look at the way we are is cringe-inducingly funny.


Clybourne Park

Presented by American Conservatory Theater

Where: 415 Geary St., San Francisco

8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 20

Tickets: $17 to $89

Contact: (415) 749.2228, www.act-sf.org

American Conservatory TheaterartsentertainmentSan Francisco

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