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The politics of race

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Bruce Norris lanced a neighborhood and out poured a vein of racism.

Albuquerque’s FUSION Theatre will perform the Tony Award-winning play about race, real estate and the volatility of both at the Lensic Performing Arts Center this weekend. In addition to the Tony, “Clybourne Park” won the Pulitzer Prize, Britain’s Olivier Award and the Evening Standard Award.

The piece explodes in two acts set 50 years apart, all based in the same modest bungalow on Chicago’s South Side. The first act is the playwright’s answer to the Lorraine Hansberry 1959 classic, “A Raisin in the Sun.”

If you go
WHAT: “Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday
2 and 8 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
COSTS: $20-$40; $10/students
CONTACT: 988-1234 or www.ticketssantafe.org

This is the audacity of rage, not hope.

The play has been a cultural fixture throughout most of the Obama presidency, produced both on Broadway and by Chicago’s prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre, as well as London’s Royal Court Theatre.

“I think we tend to believe we live in a post-racial world. But Obama is half white,” director Fred Franklin said. “There are still vestiges of (racism) around.”

Despite the presence of an African-American family in the White House, nothing much has changed over the past 50 years, the playwright argues.

On two separate afternoons, a small house in a fictional Chicago neighborhood becomes a contested site in the politics of race. It’s September 1959, and Russ and Bev are moving out to the suburbs. They’ve unknowingly sold the house to the neighborhood’s first black family, igniting a community showdown.

In the show’s second half, the neighborhood sits ripe for gentrification as the home changes hands again. This time, a young white couple with a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time plans to demolish a building now dilapidated by decades of poverty, crime and drugs. Once again, the neighborhood is “changing.” The little house is close to work and, besides, there’s a new Whole Foods.

The middle-class African-American neighbors are as hostile to the white intruders as their racist precedents were to black homebuyers 50 years ago.

“The neighborhood association is against it because they want to maintain the character,” Franklin said. “They state their views. Whose business is it? Who owns what?”

But a tragedy lurks beneath all the bickering. The home’s first family lost a child there. They want to sell to escape the pain.

“They want to try to another life,” Franklin said. “The reverberations of all that are seen in both the first act and 50 years later.”

By 2009, the integration battle is half-forgotten ancient history.

Norris “tries to confront where we are in race relations and what we believe and what we think we believe,” Franklin said.

The second act opens with the young white couple confronting the neighborhood group. They say it would be too expensive to rehabilitate the old house.

A discussion of housing codes soon degenerates into one of race, exposing resentments on both sides.

“The dialogue is really clever and interesting to listen to,” he said. “And it is comical. It’s a comedy of manners; it’s how people behave.”

The play touched a nerve in Franklin partly because he grew up in the segregated south. Today, he lives in Fredericksburg, Va., where he produced a series of Tennessee Williams plays. He premiered the playwright’s final work, discovered in an old trunk, in Provincetown, Mass.

“I know what 1959 looked like,” Franklin said, laughing.

“I do remember the ’50s very well,” he continued. “The word I would use is ‘unaware.’ You lived in your one world and were unaware of the other.

“I went to a segregated school,” he said. “We thought that was normal. There was no hatred; it was just the way things were.”

“We’re still concerned about who lives where and if we’re next door to whom,” he continued. “Real estate is at the bottom of everything, it seems.”

Hansberry’s parents bought a house in the white Chicago neighborhood of Washington Park, an action that triggered a landmark three-year Supreme Court battle in 1940. The decision was an important victory in the effort to outlaw racially-restrictive housing covenants.

The family home, a red brick three-floor, received landmark status from the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Historical Landmark Preservation in 2010.

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