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For his work on Clybourne Park, playwright Bruce Norris was lauded with almost every honor the theater community has to bestow, including theTony Award for Best Play, the Olivier and Evening Standard Awards (London) for Best Play, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A graduate of Northwestern University, Mr. Norris began his career as an actor, and used his experiences in show business as the basis for his first play The Actor Retires. Since then he has written six more plays, including The Infidel (2000), The Pain and the Itch (2004), The Unmentionables (2006), and A Parallelogram (2010), all of which had their premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. He is the recipient of the Steinberg Playwright Award (2009), and The Whiting Foundation Prize for Drama (2006) as well as two Joseph Jefferson Awards (Chicago) for Best New Work. Recently Mr. Norris spoke with SpeakEasy dramaturg Suzanne Bixby by phone from his home in New York City, just days before heading to London to work on his latest play titled The Low Road.
When you saw the movie of A Raisin in the Sun in 7th grade, how aware were you of separate neighborhoods for blacks and white people?
There was, I think, one black child in my junior high and high school—this was the ‘70s—and the cultural discussion had turned to a lot of that so I was certainly aware of it. But it had never been as pointedly demonstrated to me as in seeing that movie. That a representative of my people, my community that I lived in, asked the Youngers to not move into our neighborhood was so startling. I realized, “Oh, we’re potentially the antagonist in someone else’s story.”
What inspired you decades later to write a play where Karl Lindner, the only white character in A Raisin in the Sun, would appear?
I was doing a play of John Guare’s—as an actor at Williamstown Theatre Festival-that he’d written as a sequel to House of Blue Leaves. Ronnie Shaughnessy, the one who’s going to go blow up the Pope, had grown up and had a son and that was the part I was playing. When I was doing that play, I was staying in a dormitory down the hall from the cast of A Raisin in the Sun. So I friend of mine suggested to me that it was possible that I was thinking of “longitudinal playwriting,” plays that cover a span of time and have a kind of bookended quality to them while I was there living alongside the cast of A Raisin in the Sun. So maybe that had informed it.
Did you always intend that race would be an underlying element of your play?
If you’re writing about something that is a parallel play to A Raisin in the Sun, obviously, that is going to be a primary motivating part of the plot. But in a weird way, just as A Raisin in the Sun is about many things—money and class and the heroic acts of the family—my play is about many things and it just happens that race is one of the dynamic aspects of the play. Race is the dividing line where the skirmish unfolds, but it’s just as much about property and territory as it is about race.
If audience members go out for a drink after seeing Clybourne Park, what turn would you hope the conversation might take as they talk about the play?
Well, you know, I’m really not optimistic. A lot of us in the theatre world have the notion that somehow the things we do have some ameliorating or “society-bettering” function, and I actually don’t think that at all. I just have a purely psychological desire to—for a lack of a less pretentious way to say it— unnerve and create doubt. If there is a cocktail conversation afterwards, what I hope it would be is punctuated by periods of silence. People who normally know rather firmly what they believe suddenly don’t really know so much.
I was surprised to learn that Hansberry considered ending her play with the Younger family waiting with guns for the white people to attack—but rejected it for a more hopeful one! In your play, despite a new situation and characters in Act Two, at the core nothing has changed. Are we in a better place now 50 years down the road?
One of the traps we fall into—especially people like me on the left—is the “progress” trap. We like to think there’s some sort of linear progression toward a utopian ideal, and that each incremental or even superficial change we make is somehow part of a long march to this ideal universe. I tend to think we just have a set of circumstances, or a set of rules, that we live by in any given culture or time period. For example, the culture 50 years ago had a strong community that protected one another and provided safety that’s sort of gone now. But on the other hand, they were deeply classist, racist, homophobic—all sorts of things. The solidarity of communities was founded upon the exclusion of a lot of people for a lot of terrible reasons. So if we now change the rules of what we expect as a society, there are consequences of that change. I live now and I tend to think the time I live in is preferable to then, [but] the problems we grapple with are going to seem incredibly absurd to people 50 years from now.
Hansberry has said she wrote A Raisin in the Sun, in part, to give white theatre goers a glimpse of a culture they knew little about. And Lloyd Richards, the original director, calls it the first play to draw a black audience to Broadway. As you were writing, who were you picturing in those theatre seats watching your play?
I was writing originally thinking it was for the Steppenwolf Theatre audience in Chicago because there are so many details that are Chicago oriented. Steppenwolf Theatre happens to be on the corner of North and Clybourn Avenues. There’s no Clybourne Park neighborhood in Chicago, but there’s a little tiny playground with little swing sets and stuff around the corner called “Clybourn Park.” So it was written knowing what that Steppenwolf audience was like. The vast majority are white and privileged and liberal with a smattering of black people and Hispanic people. It’s very tough to deny the reality of who can afford to go to the theatre. Rich people can go to the theatre; it’s a luxury. And so I was writing assuming that the majority of people who would be seeing it would be white people. I tend to write plays directed at who I assume will be in the audience.
You had the opportunity to see the two plays back to back in LA. When the two are in direct conversation, do you hear different things than when Clybourne Park stands alone?
They’re such different plays with such different intentions that the main thing I hear is, “Oh, now if anyone sees A Raisin in the Sun, they’re going to realize it doesn’t quite work out—from a technical point of view—that Karl would have gone to their house. I feel like I’m going to get caught! They’re so far apart philosophically and dramatically. The connection, obviously, is very strong because one is the genesis of the other. The other thing is that her play is a classic play. We all stand back and pay respect to that play.