The Collegian
Tuesday, November 28, 2023

"Clybourne Park" explores racial barriers, then and now

In the Modlin Center this weekend, time will fast-forward by half a century in the theatre department's newest play, "Clybourne Park" 

The cast of eight actors, who spend Act 1 tensely navigating U.S. race relations in 1959, embody different characters in the second act, but the social issues framing the squabbles in 2009 remain eerily similar.

“Within each time period, and then with comparing them and connecting them — there are so many layers to what is being discussed among the characters,” said Alex Turner, cast member and Richmond College ’15. “We would talk in rehearsals about tracing perspectives through time, and how you would show that in both characters.”

In both acts of the play, community members argue over the same house in an inner-city neighborhood in Chicago. In 1959, a white family moving to the suburbs faces the wrath of their neighbors when the buyers are revealed to be African-American. In 2009, a rich, white family is buying up the same now-decaying house in the midst of a predominately African-American neighborhood, where residents are not excited about the coming renovations.

The juxtaposition of these two controversies highlight the similarities between two cultural phenomena. White flight, a 20th century migration of white families out of urban areas and into suburbs throughout the U.S., and gentrification, a modern process in which young, predominately white professionals buy inner-city homes and renovate them, which drives property taxes up and lower-income residents out.

The opportunity to confront modern issues in light of their historical causes is one of the reasons the play is so important, said Tosin Olufolabi, cast member and Westhampton College ’15. “We talked a lot about Church Hill in Richmond, and how gentrification is happening there right now,” she said. “It was great being able to learn about this and see this history, because I didn’t necessarily know all about it before.”

“The set is a character on its own,” director Chuck Mike said. It transforms during the intermission from a quaintly decorated '50s parlor to a run-down, graffitied and abandoned living room in 2009.

“Our set designer, Reed West, and our scene shop foreman, Phil Hayes, have done incredible work to bring a full interior of a house to the audience,” Turner said. “They worked really hard to see how this historical house would look as it was intended to be, and what its remnants would be,” Turner said.

The living room’s transformation is beautifully accentuated by contrasting costumes designed by Heather Hogg, and Maja White’s lighting design, which helps embody the time-warp by highlighting evidence of the house’s before-and after makeover.

Yet the most thought-provoking transformations are undergone by the actors themselves. Olufolabi, who plays an African-American maid in Act 1, returns with a vengeance in Act 2 as an activist for the modern Clybourne Park neighborhood. “My second character Lena feels strongly about this neighborhood she grew up in, because it holds a lot of history about the Civil Rights Movement, and the change and the growth that the African-American community has experienced,” Olufolabi said.

Witnessing the actors’ transformations and discoveries was the most astounding part of the process, said stage manager Kirsten Jerue, Westhampton College ’15. “Watching everyone come in the first day of rehearsal and try to feel their way through the play, and then last night, watching them truly transform into their characters – that was the most rewarding aspect,” Jerue said.

Those involved in Richmond's production said the play reflected many of their own experiences. “The crazy thing is that the show takes place in Chicago, but you can see that [gentrification] is happening in pretty much any major city,” Turner said. “But this phenomenon is always occurring. I’ve seen it – the flipping of neighborhoods in D.C., even since I was a kid.”

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Finally, the play demonstrates the difficulties and intricacies of talking across racial barriers, as both acts’ central conversations devolve into arguments about prejudices. Lena’s anger in Act 2 is mirrored by disapproving white neighbors in Act 1, Olufolabi said. “It’s clearly going to completely change the neighborhood – the prices of the homes next to it and everything else. Lena was just trying to show the white family why she wanted the neighborhood to stay the same, and they just don’t get it.”

“My hope is that people walk away talking about the event as if they were a part of it, and consequently acting on what they discuss in a positive way,” Mike said.

"Clybourne Park" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 2 through Saturday, Oct. 4, with a 2:00 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Oct. 5.

Contact reporter Chase Brightwell at

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