Gentrification and TheatreThis weekend I and the Help were invited to see the play Clybourne Park at the Woolly Mammoth Theater down in Penn Quarter. According to the theater’s website on the drama and the promotional information:
Clybourne Park explores the evolution of racism and gentrification over the past half-century in America by imagining the conflicts surrounding the purchase of a house in a white neighborhood in the 1950s by an African American family, and then the re-design of that house in “post-racial” 2009. While Clybourne Park is a Chicago neighborhood, the play makes no direct reference to its geography. Woolly believes Clybourne Park is highly reflective of the changes happening to neighborhoods throughout DC and across the metropolitan area (and urban America).And it is a riff off of Raisin in the Sun with the first half of the play taking place in the home of the family selling the home (that we assume) the RITS’ Af-Am Younger family. I thought that first half started a little slow.
I really appreciated the director’s commentary after the performance at a reception. On one point as urban DC people living in 2010 we know how to judge the characters of 1959 in the first half of the play, saying with confidence Mr. Lindner, from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, is wrong in arguing against selling to the Black family. However in the second half, taking place in what I gather to be 2009, that moral surety is not there and issues of race and gentrification are tied up in arguments about ‘history’ and architecture.
Since the Help and I are both in the History field, we pondered the ‘history’ part for a while. We also pondered the racial and chronological make up of the audience at that performance. History is messy and we found it interesting that one of the Af-Am characters was pushing the idea that the desired preserved history started with the integration of the neighborhood, not its establishment or previous ethnic makeup. Also when the Help (the whitest white guy who was ever white) pointed out the demographics of the audience which had a smattering of Afro-Americans, I mentioned audiences like my Aunt and her friends tend to favor Tyler Perryish morality plays over at the Warner Theatre.
The second half of the play does try to press a lot of gentrification topics into 6 characters. Two topics did ring a bell in relation to stories and events witnessed in the Shaw neighborhood, history and racial defensiveness. The Shaw historical narrative isn’t wrong, it just leaves a whole lot out that isn’t particularly marketable in the larger “Heritage” theme. And one character reminded me so much of a former neighbor who was one of those isolated* white families who moved to Shaw, who tried to be a good neighbor but had to walk on eggshells every time they interacted with their Black neighbors because even the banal issues were hidden roadside bombs of pent up racial anger.
UPDATE- Theater Discount
Readers of this blog can see any performance of Clybourne Park for only $15. Use this numeric code 789 when arranging tickets. Reservations can be made online (woollymammoth.net), over the phone (202-393-3939), or in person (641 D Street NW, Washington, DC). Clybourne Park runs March 15 – April 11, 2010. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm and 7pm. Questions? Visit woollymammoth-dot-net or email Rachel Grossman, Connectivity Director, Rachel-at-Woollymammoth.net
*Isolated in that they were the only white people on the whole block.