A theatrical companion to 'America to Me'

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By Doug Deuchler

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On my way to Oak Park and River Forest High School to see their fall play, Clybourne Park, I thought about how high school theater has changed since my teen years. We did shows like Harvey, Our Town, and Arsenic and Old Lace, certainly not a blistering contemporary comedy like Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris about the awkward "dance" folks do when they talk about race.

If you're unfamiliar with this satiric play, it premiered at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 2011, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that year, and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2012.

While I don't review student shows here, whenever possible, we call attention to productions that are especially worthwhile. I applaud our high school for mounting this mature and significant drama.         

This fine and often humorous production, directed by Michelle Bayer, could almost be considered a companion piece to the Steve James' TV documentary America To Me. It raises lots of racial issues.

After each performance, the entire cast remains on stage, joined by a few teachers they have chosen, to discuss the show and its meaning with the audience. This "Talk Back," which opened up insightful dialogue, was especially well-handled. 

The comedy is a pair of scenes, set exactly 50 years apart in a fictional Chicago neighborhood. The first act, which takes place in 1959, is a spin-off of Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking play, A Raisin in the Sun. A middle-aged white couple, Russ and Bev (Gregory Hann and Eleanor Babwin), are moving from their South Side bungalow out to suburbia. They have unwittingly sold their modest longtime home to the neighborhood's first African-American family. Russ and Bev have been grieving over the suicide of their son, an emotionally troubled Korean War veteran.

Karl Linder (Sam Theis), a nerdy bigot with a pregnant, deaf wife (Mira Mundt), represents a neighborhood association that wants to keep the "colored" family from buying the house. Linder, fearing the new black family's arrival will push the neighborhood into a downward spiral, tries to bribe them to stay out of their neighborhood.

Russ and Bev's black housekeeper Francine (Tiffany Akotia) and her husband (Jordan Murray), and the local clergyman (Jonny Hugh) get dragged into the debate as matters of race and real estate heat up. In their increasingly combustible state, the bigotry of some of these people is barely concealed. 

The playwright never uses the word Chicago in his text, presumably to make the show have more universal appeal. But there are many specific references to places like Kostner Avenue and Rosemont which make the location unmistakably local.

In the second act, set a half century later in 2009, there is a new generation of adversaries as the area is now gentrifying. The locale has gone through a period of decline, plagued by drugs and violence. 

The same house from Act One, now in an all-black neighborhood, has just been purchased by upper-middle-class white, expectant parents, Steve and Lindsay (Colin Lonergran and Vivienne Badynee), who have grandiose plans to raze the vintage home and build a McMansion on the lot.

African-American neighbors Lena and Kevin (Eva Fuller and Myles Green) fear the impending destruction of the vintage bungalow and oppose the newcomers' plans, wishing to preserve the traditional look and feel of what's now a historically black community. 

The costume designer is Jeffrey G. Kelly and the make-up and hair is by Patricia Cheney. The master carpenter is Ryan Pont, the scenic artist Olivia Lynch, and the master sound design is by Kyle Peterson. 

Two performances of Clybourne Park remain this weekend on Friday, Oct. 19 and Saturday, Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. at the OPRF Little Theater, 201 N. Scoville Ave., Oak Park. Tickets are $6 for students and seniors and $8 for adults and can be purchased at oprfhs.ticketleap.com/clyborne-park.

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