One House, Two Plays
—the Real Clybourne Park
By John Longenbaugh
In Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 classic play A Raisin in the Sun, The Youngers, an African-American family ruled over by the formidable matriarch Lena, must decide how to invest the insurance money they’ve received after their father’s death. By the play’s end they’ve decided to move to a house in Clybourne Park (a fictitious neighborhood, based on Chicago’s Washington Park subdivision), and this new home represents their aspirations to escape their poverty.
Though we never see the house in Clybourne Park in Raisin, the Younger family’s trajectory towards it is the engine of the play. It’s also the part of the story most autobiographical to the playwright. Lorraine’s father, Carl Hansberry, was a successful banker who went into real estate, and in 1938 moved his family from their South Side neighborhood to the exclusive white community of Washington Park, despite a restrictive covenant on blacks living there. After their move he challenged the covenant in state court and lost, but Carl continued his fight and won in the landmark 1940 Supreme Court case Hansberry vs. Lee. Memories of this real-life struggle inspired the central plot of his daughter’s play.
Some productions of Raisin, as well as the 1961 film, end on an optimistic note—the Youngers are moving towards a better future. But the playwright intended much more ambiguity. Her own memories of her childhood home included a brick tossed through the front room window and her mother patrolling the rooms with a loaded Luger when her father was away.
Despite their courage, the house in Clybourne Park is no penthouse apartment that the Youngers are movin’ on up to. It’s an unfriendly suburban neighborhood that promises years of harassment and isolation. What’s more, the only white character in Raisin, Karl Linder of the “Clybourne Park Improvement Association,” tries to buy the Youngers out to avoid their move.
Given all of this, it might seem perverse for a white playwright to write a play that shares, however obliquely, the same universe as Hansberry’s original. But playwright Bruce Norris found himself reconsidering Raisin in the context of his own childhood, growing up in Texas in the 1970s when his family fought the city’s busing legislation. “I, like Karl Lindner, was one of those problematic white people,” he said in an interview, and this led him to explore how white Americans continue to deal with issues of race and “whether, in our supposedly sophisticated, post-modern, post-racial world, anything had changed.”
As Norris’ play brilliantly reveals, 406 Clybourne Street is also a haunted house, both before and after the Younger’s residence. Who is moving out and why? What white family in 1959 would agree to sell to a black one over the objections of their neighbors? In the play’s second half (set in 2009), Lena, the grand-niece of the matriarch from Raisin, speaks of her memories visiting the house when the Youngers were living there, and whatever their status as pioneers, there’s no evidence that the family enjoyed lives of happy satisfaction in the new home.
Seattle’s a very different city, culturally and racially, than Chicago, but Clybourne’s director Braden Abraham said that our own legacy of segregated neighborhoods provides insight—if we’re looking for it. “I lived in the Central District for a while, and so to me the conversations and tensions around gentrification in this play are very recognizable,” he says.
To Abraham, the play’s insight is not as a “sequel” to Hansberry’s original, but a mirror, white to black, giving an honest assessment of some of the same issues from the other side, and doing so in a way that’s both searingly honest and unexpectedly funny. “Raisin is clearly written from the perspective of a black middle class woman in a period of radical change, and Clybourne is just as clearly from a white middle class perspective in another period of change,” said Abraham.
Have things changed between Act One (set in 1959) and Act Two (set in 2009)? Of course. But Norris is asking us, why haven’t they changed more? Decades of change, from the Civil Rights Act to black militancy and every variation in-between, has produced an America that seems more unsure than ever about how to talk about race. Even with a black man in the White House, one who actually began his political and activist career in neighboring Hyde Park, the house on Clybourne Street is a place of conflict and unease. Half a century after A Raisin in the Sun, race continues to divides us from our neighbors.
John Longenbaugh is a Seattle-based arts journalist, director and playwright. His plays include How to be Cool, Scotch and Donuts and Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol.