The Path Forward

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Okay, what's this whole Clybourne Park - A Raisin in the Sun connection at Center Theatre Group?

Good question. Stick with me a minute because this gets a little tricky.

A Raisin in the Sun is Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play revolving around an African-American family in Chicago. They're about to receive a $10,000 life insurance check and the matriarch of the family is committed to moving out of their tenement apartment and into a proper house with a yard. The only problem: the house she buys is in an all white neighborhood: Clybourne Park.

Okay, fast forward almost 50 years and playwright Bruce Norris writes a 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the house that that family was moving into - hence the title, Clybourne Park. Norris sets the first of two acts in 1959. We meet the white family that's moving out and we learn of the family tragedy that got them to sell.

Act Two is set in 2009. A lot has happened - at least in real estate. Let's put it this way, the local supermarket has gone from a Gelman's in 1959 to a Sup'r Sav'r and now it's a Whole Foods. Sound familiar? The house is about to be torn down and a seemingly lovely white couple is planning on building their own McMansion.

Norris' play has been lauded for, to quote the Pulitzer committee, "memorable characters" who "speak in witty and perceptive ways to America's sometimes toxic struggle with race and class consciousness."

For Center Theatre Group, it's a clever bit of curation pitting A Raisin in Sun as a foil to the Broadway bound Clybourne Park.

It's tough to say but seeing both plays: I long for 1959.

Don't get me wrong, I don't want to go back to racial covenants and pre-civil rights America but I can't help but wonder: has the theater lost its cultural power in the last 50 years?

Sitting at the Kirk Douglas Theater, it's jarring to think that half a century ago A Raisin in the Sun was on Broadway. I can't think of a single play on Broadway today that speaks as insightfully to our time as Hansberry did to hers. Can you?

It's not just that Hansberry gave voice to a struggling family. It's that she did it in a shockingly honest and complicated way. A Raisin in the Sun isn't a didactic play. To be fair, it verges on melodrama but in the end we're invited, as an audience, to peer into a family's soul.

By contrast, Norris' Clybourne Park is little more than a satirical commentary on where we are as a society. Act two is basically an elaborate setup to tell offensive jokes. The plays theatrical currency is not our nobility but rather our more fearful dark side.

I wonder though if commentary, if satire is enough? I longed for a character in Clybourne Park to shed some light on the human condition, on our condition. Something more than just: 'look how screwed up we still are.'

I wonder if theater's job is to do more than simply reflect our society and to somehow light the path forward?

That's what Lorraine Hansberry did.

A Raisin in the Sun plays at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through February 19.

Clybourne Park plays at the Mark Taper Forum downtown through February 26.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Banner image: (Left) (L-R) Damon Gupton, Crystal A. Dickinson, Annie Parisse and Jeremy Shamos in the Playwrights Horizons production of Clybourne Park. Photo by Craig Schwartz
(Right) Brandon David Brown and Kim Staunton in the Ebony Repoertory Theatre production of A Raisin in the Sun. Photo by Craig Schwartz