Bruce Norris’s play Clybourne Park touches upon the issues of racial discrimination, political correctness, prejudice, segregation, and gentrification illustrated by a story of two generations living in the same neighborhood. As the characters get into heated arguments to protect the integrity of their communities, Norris explores the development of racist and sexist attitudes throughout the decades. The author demonstrates that the concerns about community integrity are essentially based on racial prejudice, and public attitudes have not changed in decades despite changes in society.
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The play is set in a house in the neighborhood of Clybourne Park located in central Chicago across two time periods. The first act is set in 1959, five years before the introduction of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibited discrimination based on race and color. It centers around an American middle-class family that sells their house at a knock-down price to move to another neighborhood in hopes of escaping the painful memories of their son’s death. The house is bought by a black family, which sparks a conflict between the neighbors on whether actions should be taken to protect their all-white neighborhood. The second act is set in 2009, when a white family moves into the same house, which is now in a poor state, in order to restore and rebuild it. The neighborhood is now populated by African Americans, and the arrival of a white family raises fears about the future of the community. In both acts, the conflicts escalate to a high degree of hostility, with the characters using harsh language to express their concerns.
In both acts, the main conflict centers around the neighbor’s concerns about people of another race moving into their neighborhood. In the first act, set in 1959, these concerns are discussed between neighbors with the deliberations on whether certain actions should be taken to prevent it. In 2009, the matter is addressed by the Neighborhood Association and the family themselves when renovation plans are discussed. Karl and Lena are the main advocates of these concerns in 1959 and 2009 respectively.
In both discussions, the nature of concerns is explained similarly based on financial interests and the integrity of the community. In 1959, Karl is worried that the value of their property will decline as more and more black families move in (Norris 43). In 2009, Lena is worried that the black community that has been living in the neighborhood for years is in danger of becoming priced out now that middle-class white people want to move in. She does not want big houses replacing the ones she grew up in, advocating for the preservation of the architectural heritage of the neighborhood (Norris 79). Both characters seem to be guided by the fear of losing the financial stability that the upcoming changes suggest.
However, financial matters seem to only be the tip of the iceberg, as becomes apparent throughout the discussions. As conversations become more intense, the integrity of the community and racial issues come to the foreground. In 1959, Karl claims that a black family would disturb the status quo in Clybourne Park, emphasizing the differences between black and white customs, traditions, and religion. He even brings in black servant Francine to prove his point of view, demanding her to say that she would feel uncomfortable living in Clybourne Park (Norris 38). In 2009, Lena is revealed to also be worried about the integrity of the community. She says, “Well when I was growing up I really don’t remember seeing a white face in the neighborhood for pretty much my entire…” (Norris 87). The discussion continues with one of the characters quoting an article claiming that the area declined with the arrival of African Americans in the 1970s (Norris 82). It becomes clear that the real reason for the rejection is racial differences, and both black and white characters have prejudices against people of a different race living next door to them.
With the nature of the conflict has remained the same throughout the decades, there are some differences in how it is addressed by the characters. Their language and arguments reflect the changes in society and the level of political correctness characteristic of that decade. Both discussions start with the characters being cautious about the sensitive matters they touch. However, as the conversation becomes more heated, they start to use harsher language, make discriminating comments, and accuse each other of racist views. It becomes apparent that although society has changed, people’s views on race and discrimination have remained practically the same.
In 1959, Karl starts his argument by acknowledging the nature of the matter. He clearly states that the problem is in the black family moving to the house. However, when explaining the nature of his concerns, he softens it by referring to cultural differences, traditions, religion, and even food. When addressing Francine, he says nothing about the race: “So, with your children, might this be the sort of place, bearing in mind that they, too, would stand to be affected? (Norris 38). It can be said that also the core of the problem is the concerns that poor black people will not fit in, the characters are, nevertheless, afraid to express their opinions on race directly.
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Bev is trying to resolve the conflict by expressing sympathy towards Francine and her husband. However, she is constantly condescending in her behavior. Although she defends the right of a black family to move into the neighborhood, it is clear that she does not regard them as equals. It becomes obvious in her conversation with Francine’s husband Albert when he once again rejects her gift of a chafing dish, claiming, “Ma’am we don’t want your things. Please. We got our own things” (Norris 52). Beth is offended, seeming not to have considered that her gifts might not have been accepted. For her, poverty and blackness are entwined, and she cannot presume that black people do not need her offerings.
In 2009, as the conflict progresses, the characters use harsher language, making racist jokes about women, homosexuals, and black people. As Bev in 1959, now Lindsey defends black people and says that she has a lot of black friends, also she cannot name a few when asked. The author stresses out that although the notion of politically correct language has changed, people’s attitudes have remained the same.
In Clybourne Park, Norris explores how racial prejudice influences attitudes within communities. In both acts of the play, when faced with an issue of a family of a different race moving into their neighborhood, the characters explain their concerns with financial and cultural matters. However, as the discussion becomes more heated, their real attitudes and racial prejudice come into the foreground. The play illustrates how public attitude on racial problems has not changed with time and still remains a topic of much controversy.
Norris, Bruce. Clybourne Park. Nick Hern Books, 2011.