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“Clybourne Park” Debuts Sunday and Unapologetically Mirrors Racial Tensions

If the purpose of theater is to hold a cracked mirror to society, then UCI drama’s latest production unapologetically reflected ugly truths, as Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park”  premiered last Saturday at Claire Trevor’s Robert Cohen Theater. Actress-turned-director Leslie Ishii, known for her role on ABC’s acclaimed drama LOST, lends her production chops to UCI Drama’s staging of this cuttingly satirical play. Look out neolibs, the mirror’s aimed directly at you.

Advertised as a spiritual successor of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Clybourne Park” holds its social scalpel flush against two great American pastimes: real estate and racism.

America’s anxiety, clumsiness and identity crisis regarding racial relations play out in a suburban-Chicago house through the eyes of two progressive families on the verge of moving.

In Act One, it’s 1959; enter Bev and Russ (Kelsey Jackson and Sam Arnold), who are selling their house in hopes for a fresh start. Hansberry’s Younger family (who are alluded to but never seen) eventually buy it.

Russ is gruff and grieving; the couple, who have lived in this house for years, have known tragedy under this roof. Bev is the picture of Eisenhower-era white middle-class domesticity: housework done in a Donna Reed dress, kitten heels. In fact, the detail-oriented stage-setting (done handily by designers Aaron Jackson and Travis Deck) evoke this bygone era; Time and National Geographic mags dated August 1959 are stacked by an old rotary phone. It’s an atelier with the ambiance of a jazz lounge.

Before the show, old sultry jazz standards, full and brassy and hi-def, play through speakers, punctuated with nostalgic commercials: “What cig do you smoke, doctor?” “Lucky Strike, of course!” Anti-Soviet scare propaganda, ads for 22-cent quarts of milk, and Alka Seltzer and Mr. Clean radio jingles flesh out this sitcom-caricature sense of place

Throughout the play is an underlying tension between the characters, a bubbling sort of mix of miscommunication and being lost in translation. In both acts, it’s not long before the pot boils over, from meandering small talk into incendiary shouting matches.

With his very deaf, very pregnant wife Betsy (Shannon Funderburk), Karl Lindner (Robert Tendy), the only “Raisin” character, exploits Bev’s conspicuously black maid Francine (Nicole Cowans) and her husband Albert (Amandla Bearden) as centerpieces to his chaotic, clumsily-worded racist justification to stop the sale and keep his neighborhood white.

Jim (Craig Bauner) a well-meaning, if not sentimental, pastor adds friction to this “civilized, progressive” debate until it all implodes in on itself.

Cosmetic anachronisms of set design are overshadowed by the ultimate one: Lindner’s abject racism. But in light of Act Two, is Karl’s racism really that out of place?

Flash forward to 2009. America still quakes from the housing crisis and ensuing economic recession. A black man sits in the White House. Instead of white jazz, pop, hip-hop and R&B permeate the airwaves, all 808 beats and black chanteuses.

The house is cleaned out, ready for heavy renovation. Enter: Lindsey and Steve (Ms. Funderburk and Mr. Tendy, now in trendy-casual costume), yuppie spouses moving into this “charming”, rapidly changing historically black Chicago suburb (a new Whole Foods just replaced the neighborhood supermarket, a harbinger of gentrification as many “South Park” fans know), much to the chagrin of locals Lena Younger (Cowans), great-niece of the “Raisin” matriarch bearing the same name, and her husband Kevin (Bearden) who try to sway the young, white couple to reconsider their move, or at least their gratuitously garish renovations.

The parallels that connect the two acts become quite clear as the group begins their “predictable, little euphemistic tap dance,” as one character puts it, around the “issue.”

Conversations about world travels mirror exchanges in Act One, and show how painfully, comfortably middle-class these people are. 1950’s sensibility translates to 21st century neoliberal pre-occupation with “long-range economic interests” and “systematic political marginalization.” But in Clybourne Park, progressive tact can only go the way of racist fiasco.

“Half of my friends are black!” exclaims Lindsey; Steve and Lena spar with racially insensitive jokes, starting an “I’m offended!” olympics that devolves into a fever-dream shouting match that mirrors eerily how precocious conversations about race now, in 2016, tend to go.

We’re invited to laugh at these characters — who of course totally aren’t us — and we pat ourselves on the back that we’re able to stage such a successful play as provocative as this, letting ourselves off the hook. Screw history! I won’t carry the burdens of my ancestors! But the hook, the trauma of racial relations in this country, is still lodged deep in our guts. With a cast of high caliber talent, Leslie Ishii’s rendering of “Clybourne Park” sheds the cautious, forward-gazing hope of “A Raisin in the Sun,” for a bleak, yet sharply funny look at the past, showing us how far we haven’t actually gone.