Clybourne Park – Footnotes
The Footnotes to our episode on Clybourne Park include listening for the echoes of the first act in the second half of the play, the small things that reveal the characters’ unconscious bias, and how we define the tribes we belong to.
The structure of the play cleverly draws lines between the characters in the first and second acts to underline the connections that history creates in the lives of individuals and communities. The echoes between the acts are clearly sounded by the doubling up of the actors, but there are also details that connect the characters:
- Betsy and Lindsey are both pregnant – the beginning of new lives and another generation in the community their parents choose.
- Kathy is the child Betsy was pregnant with in Act 1, and we discover from her that her parents moved out of the neighbourhood shortly after Russ and Bev’s house was sold to the “coloured” family, as in fact Karl predicted that change would follow one house at a time.
- Francine and Albert, and Lena and Kevin, both have three children.
- It was Lena’s great aunt who moved into Russ and Bev’s house in 1959, after whom Lena is named. It was also ‘Lena’ Turner who bought the original house in Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun.
- I think that we can assume that Tom Driscoll, the real estate agent in the second act, is related to Ted Driscoll, the agent who sold Russ and Bev’s house in Act 1. Some continuity in the community through the enduring family business perhaps.
All of these echoes suggest the legacies that we leave to subsequent generations, and also highlight the comparative changes that have occurred in the fifty years between the acts.
Renaissance echoes, 2019
by Olafur Eliasson
Photo: Jens Ziehe
The explicit racism on display in the first act of the play is clearly shocking. However, the unconscious bias the characters reveal is just as telling of the deeply ingrained prejudice that is born of their social conditioning. Bev’s claim that she and Francine are “friends”, for example, is of course tone deaf. Much as she would like to think it is the case, she is hidebound by the historical paradigm of their relationship. Her attempt to give away the chafing dish is founded on her assumption of their need and subservience. The fact that she does not know that Francine and Albert have three children, not two, puts paid to the closeness of their relationship.
When Jim answers the door to Albert and learns that he has arrived to collect Francine, he hesitates because he’s not sure if he should invite him into the house. Albert himself waits until Bev expressly asks him if he would like to wait inside. It is not a given that he should.
And then after Albert comes in, Bev and the Reverend continue their personal conversation about Russ’s mental health when Albert is still within earshot. They behave almost as if he isn’t there, or at least doesn’t count. The most egregious example of this is that they all continue the conversation that Karl initiates about the sale of the house to the “coloured” family in the presence of Francine and Albert, seemingly oblivious to them as witnesses of their explicit prejudice. You can say what you like in front of the servants.
In the second act Lindsey and Steve are so entangled by their unconscious bias that they are unable to speak normally or freely to Lena and Kevin. Lindsey is determinedly polite to Lena by way of affirming her liberal credentials, while Steve is so paralysed by the dangers of talking about race that when he chooses to address the elephant in the room he is almost physically tongue-tied. Their excessive sensitivity to race betrays their fundamental discomfort.
Steve attributes the argument with Lena about the house to be about race because he is predisposed to feel any conflict with a black person must have its source in historical racial resentment. This paradigm of race relations is so persistent for him that he cannot escape responding in these terms. It is very difficult to escape the bias that history conditions.
There’s a glimpse in the play of another take on how we label people as members of a social tribe, based not on race or economic wealth, but on political views or allegiance. Again Norris challenges the simple stereotyping.
Steve is outraged by what he calls the “white suburban assholes” who are displaying ‘Support our Troops’ magnets on their cars, because Steve assumes that every sensible, liberal-minded person should now be against the “bullshit war” in Iraq. Steve is somehow claiming distance from this tribe of “white suburban assholes”, while confident that present company will share his views.
He particularly seems to be believe that Kevin would be against the war, either because he assumes blacks are likely to be Democrats, or perhaps because Kevin would object to the historical fact that blacks have been disproportionately active in the US army. In fact Kevin has three members of his family serving overseas, and has three yellow-ribbon magnets on his car. He and Steve are not of the same tribe in this case after all.
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