Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What we talk about when we talk about race

This weekend, despite the terrible winds and torrential rains, we enjoyed an ear and eyeful of theater that began on Friday night with Sam Shepard's acclaimed "Lie of the Mind," continued with a Saturday matinee of Shepard's most recent work - "Ages of the Moon," led straight on Saturday evening to the incomparable Judith Ivey as Amanda Wingfield in "Glass Menagerie" (Steve's candidate for greatest American play), and concluded on Sunday with "Clybourne Park." All of these were remarkable, but the one I want to talk about here, at least a little, is the last - Clybourne Park, because it is a fascinating study of how little progress we have made confronting race and racism between 1959 (a period of overt racism and the topic of the first act) and 2009 (a period of somewhat more covert politically correct racism and the focus of the second act).

In the first act, the play tells the story of a white family that has been shattered by the suicide death of their Korean War veteran son and has decided to leave the all-white Clybourne section of Chicago for an outlying suburb. Unknowingly, because they have left the details of the sale to a realtor, they have sold their house at a bargain to a black family. This causes an uproar in the neighborhood to which the departing family is deaf. This scene portrays the surface politeness of some middle class whites of the time, while also emphasizing their racist assumptions and economic self-interest.

Cut to the second act and now gentrification has set in and an affluent white couple are eager to purchase the same house but with plans for major renovations that will alter the character of the neighborhood. They are met at the house by a black couple who live in the area and are concerned about the white couple's intentions. What begins as an ordinary meeting among the couples and their various representatives descends first into bitter political correctness and then out and out chaos as all the pent up emotions about racism and gentrification and white entitlement come to a boil. It is a wild, hilarious, often intimidating scene, but it reminds us with all the power of good theater how far we are from being a post-racial society, and how utterly dependent our very identities are on embedded ideas about race. The key characters are the white couple buying the house, who seem outwardly proud about their liberal attitudes toward race but are very quick to spew racist stereotypes when pushed even a little by the black couple who represent the neighborhood's preservation interests. What this play makes clear is the reason we have so much difficulty talking about race and racism is that in reality we haven't come very far at all, and the more overt racism of 1959 still clings to us despite all our posturing to the contrary.

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