Krannert and the Gentrification-Drama Movement

As the last of the fall offerings from the Illinois Theatre Department, Clybourne Park is particularly exigent drama for the UIUC community. The vast majority of our students hail from the Chicagoland area–the hundreds of suburbs and fringe neighborhoods that ring the city proper. Due to the culture of city experience and efficient transit options, these students have a strong connection to the city and its issues usually. That are at least passingly-versed in the history of race relations and gentrification of Chicago and the Midwest more broadly. Clybourne Park is another example of Krannert’s increasing interest in exactly who their target audiences are, crafting seasons more attuned to cultivating a new generation of play-goers by marketing plays that take up issue within students’ realm of experiences as well as playtexts that challenge such familiarity.

And it is a play that explicitly takes up the challenge of defamiliarizing the familiar. The action is split in two, taking place in the neighborhood immediately before and sometime after the events of Lorraine Hansbury’s influential drama, A Raisin in the Sun. While the Pulitzer Prize-winning play has been referred to by some as a white-washing of its source, a version for the white community, the dramatization of white conversations about a new black family moving in and its influence on property values is perhaps an even more challenging approach that Hansbury’s initial vision. By staging those private, closed conversations where racism, classicism, and our obsessions with status symbols come to bear, Bruce Norris shines a spotlight on communal function and dysfunction then and now.

Left: Preston “Wigasi” Brant (Albert/Kevin). Right: Neal Moeller (Russ/Dan).

The play puts conversations in white households in 1959 and 2009 side by side in two acts. Like Stoppard’s *Arcadia*, the play double-casts figures in both time periods to underscore some of the comparisons. And while race is of course the central issue, this staging makes sure not to downplay its intersections with other kinds of minorities, including a traumatized soldier and a deaf woman. Having seen the production in its initial 2011 run in Chicago at the Steppenwolf Theatre, I think I preferred the youth this production brought with it over the gravitas of the Steppenwolf ensemble.

Steppenwolf has been at the forefront of a compositional movement in playing in the last 10 years that focuses on the intersections of class and race using gentrified or gentrifying neighborhoods in Chicago (or other major cities like Boston) as its locus, most notably August: Osage County, Superior Donuts. and last year’s Good People. Steppenwolf’s ensemble is made up of now-renowned stage, television, and film actors, many elder-statesmen of the trade. This works for a piece like August: Osage County because the play deals with middle-America family dysfunction and mid-life crises. Donuts and Park require voices that can represent characters in a formative part of their lives working through exactly how they feel about racial difference and miscegenation to which a university program can cater.

Overall, the production is a measured work. The closely-knit ensemble works well together to balance and smooth-over potential pot-holes caused by different degrees of experience. Familial trauma is placed at the forefront, as Neal Moeller (Russ/Dan), Akua Sarhene (Francine/Lena), and Nick Narcisi (Karl/Steve) speak truth most directly to the power of class and the ugliness of prestige. I hope that a continued interest in staging plays with direct relevance to our students, not only aging subscribers in the region, will pay off for Krannert in its aesthetic and educational mission.