Student dramaturg Joshua Tyler Parrott, who is a Music Theatre and Arts Administration double major, explains the connections between Bruce Norris’s 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning play and Lorraine Hansberry’s iconic 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun in his Talk on the Steps for Clybourne Park, 16 April 2016. He investigated Chicago’s racial housing discrimination that Norris explores in Act One of Clybourne Park, and contrasted that to the contemporary gentrification issues explored in Act Two. Read his talk below:
My name is Joshua Parrott, and I served on the play’s dramaturgical team for both Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park and the staged reading of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which just finished its final performance this afternoon. A dramaturg’s role includes providing the creative team and the actors historical context for their materials—the “Who”, “What”, “When”, “Where”, and “Why”, of the play’s setting itself—and also how the play impacted the world at large. Now, while the play can absolutely be appreciated and enjoyed without such historical context, I would still like to share what I consider to be the most essential points to bear in mind and consider before attending this incredible production (And I promise it’s good – I saw it yesterday).
Firstly, where did the play originate? Believe it or not, Clybourne Park is, at its core, a piece of fan-fiction – serving as a narrative extension to the famous 1959 drama of A Raisin in the Sun. A Raisin in the Sun tells the story of an African-American family, the Youngers, living on Chicago’s South Side of the same year, and their ultimate decision to move into an all-white neighborhood in Chicago’s Clybourne Park, despite protestations made by the community’s opinionated representative, Karl Lindner, who also appears in this play. In its first act, Clybourne Park tells the story of the 1959 family that is moving out of the Clybourne neighborhood so that the Youngers can move in, while the second act explores the fate of the same building almost 50 years later, while the now mostly African American community is amidst a state of gentrification.
It’s interesting to note that A Raisin in the Sun’s main plot was based on the author’s own life experiences with the racially suppressive house market system, which eventually led to the historical legal case known as Hansberry v. Lee.
Hansberry v. Lee resulted from a 1937 purchase of property by Carl Hansberry, a prominent African American and the author’s father. Anna Lee, a Caucasian woman, who was one of many signatories of a restrictive covenant by the property owners’ association not to sell lots to African Americans, sued for $100,000. Lee won her case in circuit court and in the Supreme Court of Illinois, and eventually the case landed in the Supreme Court of the United States.
On the Supreme Court level, Lee argued that more than five hundred landowners had signed the agreement, which stated that it would be ineffective unless signed by 95% of the owners. She then claimed that Hansberry had bought and occupied the land despite knowledge of the covenant. Hansberry’s lawyer, Earl Dickerson, retorted that the required percentage of residents had NOT signed the agreement, thereby voiding the contract.
Ultimately, the justices reversed the Supreme Court of Illinois’ decision on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process rights, arguing that it was unfair to allow the 54% of the neighborhood landowners who had signed the covenant to represent the 46% who had not. Although the justices’ ruling was based on a legal technicality and did not actually void restrictive covenants, the decision did represent a significant milestone in the fight against housing discrimination, and in fact opened up some areas formerly restricted from African American ownership. But, it would take many more years of legal battle before racially limiting covenants would ultimately be deemed unconstitutional and housing opportunity would begin to be equalized with legal progress like the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
Now, just about anyone can look this up on Google or read it in a textbook, so why does it need to be communicated in a play? For author Lorraine Hansberry, this was her life. Her family’s house was attacked with bricks thrown from her own community, and even her father’s success in the courts was due to a legal technicality, not a renewed sense of ethical judgment.
Simply put, both plays explore just how deep-rooted the levels of prejudice, racism, sexism, and general bigotry have tainted and contorted our “civilized” world, from economics to politics to our own neighborhoods. And while I personally do greatly enjoy the first act, I encourage you all to pay acute attention to the discussions and arguments that arise in the latter half, set in 2009, because that is the reality we all endure, even if many are desensitized to it.
Last year Elon University held a campus conversation on racial issues: Nearly 100 students, faculty and staff met on January 26, 2015, at a forum sponsored by the Black Cultural Society and The Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity Education. The forum followed a report on Jan. 21 by an African American female student. She reported that two college-age white males yelled derogatory sexual and racial slurs at her from a car as she was standing on Haggard Avenue near the Numen Lumen Pavilion. Many others clamored of similar plights, yelling together, “”What is it about Elon that makes it OK to behave this way?” as they read off multiple offensive and racist comments from local social media outlets and Yik Yak. Many others were upset that the majority of the crowds were non-white, and that the overall numbers in attendance were so few.
That was nearly a year ago, and anyone absent-mindedly listening to the news can cite multiple cases of racial disputes, both locally and nationally. This will never be a topic to be swept under the rug, and, as uncomfortable and unsettling, as it can be to initiate them, truly open-minded conversations are, to me, the only palpable roads to a solution. Clybourne Park is just one of those many, thought-provoking and emotionally stirring roads. I leave you with the profound words of Lorraine Hansberry, and urge you all to take heed to her elegant council:
“…I am the first to say that ours is a complex and difficult country and some of our complexities are indeed grotesque. We who are Negro Americans can offer that last remark with unwavering insistence. It is, on the other hand, also a great nation with certain beautiful and indestructible traditions and potentials, which can be seized by all of us who possess imagination and love of man. There is, as a certain play suggests, a great deal to be fought in America – but, at the same time, there is so much which begs to be but re-affirmed and cherished with sweet defiance.
Vulgarity, blind conformity and mass lethargy need not triumph in the land of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass and Walt Whitman and Mark Twain. There is simply no reason why dreams should dry up like raisins or prunes or anything else in America. If you will permit me to say so, I believe that we can impose beauty on our future…”
Thank you, and enjoy Clybourne Park.