Gentrification: “ Clybourne Park ” Plot Speaks to Borderstan

by March 23, 2010 at 6:30 am 3,200 1 Comment

Borderstan Movie Fan movie reviews Mary Burganby Mary Burgan

Mary the Borderstan Movie Fan’s column on movies runs every two weeks. This week, however, Mary reviews a play that is running at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company: Clybourne Park. For more information about the play and how the theme and plot relate to the Logan Circle-Shaw area, see the Friday post, “Woolly Mammoth’s ‘Clybourne Park’ Looks at Gentrification.” Mary and her husband have resided in Dupont-Logan since the 1990s. She is a retired professor of English and association executive.

Note on special ticket promotion: Woolly Mammoth is running a special promotion with $30 tickets for Borderstan readers. When purchasing tickets use the code 788. Go to for more information and tickets.

Clybourne Park cleverly juxtaposes a day in 1959 when a white family is moving out with a day in 2009 when another white family is preparing to move into a house in a near north suburb of Chicago.

The first family has sold the house to a black family (possibly the Younger family from Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun), while the second white family is redesigning the same house to suit their upscale notions, though its neighborhood is now mainly black. They are planning a Koi pond in the back yard.

In the first act, a couple of neighbors come in to argue against the sale as devaluing all the property in the area. Ignoring the force of a tragedy that has happened in the house, they accuse the white couple of profiteering, disregarding community mores, and opening up the neighborhood to “unfortunate” influences.

Borderstan Logan Circle Wolly Mammoth Theatre

“Clybourn Park” looks at gentrification in a Chicago neighborhood. It runs through April 11 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre at 641 D Street NW. (Stan Barouh, courtesy of Woolly Mammoth)

The second act, 50 years later, features arguments about how the new couple’s yuppie renovation will destroy the memories that black families have made for themselves in the neighborhood.

The play pits a black couple against a white couple in each act. In the first, black woman and her working-class husband, who has come to pick her up from work, is a servant; in the second, a younger and more affluent black couple is played by the same actors.

They are more articulate than the black couple in the first act, and they make their arguments against turning the house into a McMansion from positions of equality with the white couple who have bought the house. The tables have turned.

As drama Bruce Norris’ play works very well, and the production at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre on D Street, near the Chinatown Metro, is excellent.

However, I thought the first act, which sets up the problem of block busting had a bit too much broad satire, played too broadly.

One of the visiting neighbors is that perennial object of scorn–a Rotarian, and his wife is deaf.  Clearly, they are buffoons. The second act redeemed the first both by being less tendentious and by having some very clever interplay about politically correct language staged in a kind of contest about who could tell the most demeaning racial joke. The black woman wins.

Clybourne Park is good theater and the acting is generally superb. Most important, though, the play provokes reflection on the issue of gentrification. Clybourne Park speaks to those of us in the Borderstan area area of Washington (especially Logan and Shaw) with particular force. Like characters in Norris’ play, we can be seen as interlopers into an area that was once mainly black.

As Clybourne Park makes clear, every neighborhood community has probably displaced another one and may be haunted by the displacement. But if the issue were simply a matter of accepting inevitable change, the play wouldn’t be that interesting. Displacement is also a problem of inequality in class and economic power.

This city’s black and Hispanic population is squeezed by lack of jobs and money, although our politicians always seem to run on a platform of “affordable housing.” Meanwhile, local institutions such as the Central Rescue Mission are replaced with high-rent condos and loft apartments.

In many cases, these new structures have revitalized the neighborhood, but Clybourne Park suggests that citizens who have benefited by the change must stop to think–as President Obama did in Chicago–about how they could help make the political process more urgent on behalf of persons displaced by the power of their demographic.

Is the take-over of a fading neighborhood a matter of urban renewal or is it the usurpation of neighborhoods by complacent folk who mean well but insist on their own right to use a neighborhood any way they wish?

Clybourne Park does not really answer that question, but it raises its complexities through a clever historical structure and some sharp and witty dialogue.


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