Bruce Norris on Clybourne Park

18 August 2010

I began writing Clybourne Park about four years ago, around the time we were doing The Pain and the Itch at the Royal Court, and over a year before Obama would be elected President.

There’s a famous American play called A Raisin in the Sun that many Americans of my generation (I’m 50) were assigned to read in school. It’s the story of the Younger family of Chicago, a black family that decide in 1959 to move from their crowded apartment to a new home in a fictional neighbourhood that the play’s author, Lorraine Hansberry, called Clybourne Park. Well, I saw this play as a child (actually, I saw the movie) and it stuck with me – especially the scene in which the matriarch of the Younger family slaps her daughter for denying the existence of God. She makes her daughter repeat the words “in my mother’s house there is still God”. I loved this scene in particular because at age eleven I already knew myself to be an atheist (I didn’t believe in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy either). Plus, I liked the violence. I also took note of the fact that all of the characters in the play – with one exception, are black. And being white, and from Texas, I had never previously imagined myself to be in the minority of anything. There was one white character, but he was… well, basically the villain. He was a weaselly man named Karl Lindner, from the neighbourhood of Clybourne Park, who had come to this family’s home to ask them, as politely as possible, to stay away. The white man, strangely, was the bad guy.

It was not until many years later that I was to realize that the all-white school I attended was not just my school by chance. This was Houston, Texas in 1971, a city that was considering the practice of busing children from one neighbourhood to another in order to achieve racial and educational equality, and my parents (with the best of intentions) had withdrawn me from one school district and into another which was protected from this possibility. I, like Karl Lindner, was one of those problematic white people. And four years ago I began to write Clybourne Park as a way of looking at how white Americans like me have dealt with issues of race, past and present, and to ask myself whether, in our supposedly sophisticated, post-modern, post-racial world, anything had changed.

And then, while working on the play, my country elected its first black President. And we white people congratulated ourselves and celebrated how far we’d come. But then… lo and behold, as the year dragged on and all of the change we’d so eagerly anticipated failed to materialize and as more and more appalling examples of our entrenched, old-fashioned impulses continued exactly as they always had, I began to think… aren’t we more enlightened than that? Aren’t we able to choose? Can’t we change like Obama promised us? Or is it maybe that racism, per se, isn’t really the problem. Maybe it’s the denial of it. Maybe it’s our unwillingness to admit that we all once belonged to a tribe of greedy, violent apes contending over territory with other apes, and that we’re still figuring out what to do with that legacy, as we suspiciously regard each other across the boundaries we live within.