Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why Clybourne Park matters

As you may know, Woolly Mammoth Theatre is in the midst of a second run of Bruce Norris' play Clybourne Park. If you didn't catch it the first time around, (before it picked up the Pulitzer Prize for Drama), now through August 14 is your chance.

The theatre also runs a great blog containing thoughts from the people who are involved in the production of the play. A recent post from Rachel Grossman, Woolly's connectivity director, illustrates how the play's themes relate to Brightwood and many other neighborhoods in DC, and how the play can encourage further dialogue about the changes that are taking place in the city:

The Washington, DC area is undergoing a mind-bogglingly rapid economic growth and development, and is simultaneously experiencing a striking shift in population (both as result of and in response to the former). Right on their coattails is a significant, potentially seismic, cultural shift in the city which is heard foreshadowed in phrases like “Chocolate City is going vanilla” and “Chocolate City is melting.” As the face of our city changes—architecturally, economically, and, quite literally, of the faces of the people who live here—a charge is building up with few ways to productively release it widely and publically. I would argue that this is because we lack a shared experience, common ground and neutral territory on which to meet and engage in open dialogue. For many, Clybourne Park is that shared experience and provides us perspective from which to begin conversation.

In 13 years of leading discussions following theatrical performances, I have yet to see a show that primes people to talk intimately in a room of strangers about heated topics like race and gentrification as
Clybourne Park. It is the “perfect storm” of connectivity: linking audience members with one another and the artists through the work of art. During the initial run in March and April 2010, I was humbled by the willingness of audiences to speak from the heart sharing deeply personal stories and beliefs of the “way the world works” which were suddenly questioned. The outpouring of conversation led to the decision to create opportunity for dialogue after every performance of the remount.

15 months after the initial run, the landscape in DC has shifted—from the change in DC’s mayoral seat to the shifting racial makeup of the city’s citizenry. We’ll be engaging with
Clybourne Park this time from a different starting point. What shape will the conversation take in the theatre? Only the next four weeks will tell. Can it have an impact on the city’s larger capacity to dialogue about race and gentrification? We hope so.

So if you ask me why this show matters, to me or to Woolly... Sure, it is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Of course, the production is hilarious and poignant. Yes, we expect many people to purchase tickets. But it matters because it models as a function that theatre could play in this city and in American society. It unites citizens in the pleasurable act of collective imagining, while also challenging us to examine innermost portions of ourselves as individuals, a community, a nation.

Grossman has organized a series of post-performance forums for audience exchanges with various artists, scholars, journalists, and community activists that have been sparking interesting discussions and are well worth attending.

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