Tough Talk in “Clybourne Park”

21Jan11
I’ve been talking up a storm about the show I’m currently costuming, Clybourne Park, because it has the cast and crew abuzz with intense conversation about it’s themes of gentrification and race and community and absolution.  We had our first preview last night and the audience was incredibly enthusiastic – tons of laughs and applause and chatter.
The award-winning show is a riff on A Raisin in the Sun, a story about a working class black family that is the first to move into a middle-class white neighborhood in the center of Chicago in the late 40’s to 1950’s.  Clybourne Park tells the same story from the perspective of the white family who are vacating the house that is being moved into.  The show then jumps forward to the present day where the same house is subject to a debate about whether a new set of property owners can tear it down to put up a modern new house.  This time, the racial roles are reversed.

Katherine Roth designed the costumes with quite different concepts for the first and second acts.  Act I, set around 1959, features costumes that very clearly delineate the character’s status and highlights their specific roles within society.  At a glance, one can tell who is paired with whom, who is of a higher or lower class, who is a minister and who is a housewife.  The characters’ dialogue takes on another level of meaning when you see the words coming from the mouths of these specific archetypes. When the curtain opens on Act II, very little is revealed very little about the character’s class or relationships.  It forces you to pay close attention to the words on stage to discover who is who in the situation.  In the end, the message is clear: even though class and racial struggles have been hidden behind a collective uniform of jeans and a t-shirt, there is still a real tension present in our society.
The San Francisco Chronicle has this to say about the show:

References to tropes and characters from the first act crop up in telling ways. The differences in attitudes and power dynamics, within as well as between the couples, add immediacy to the social satire. What becomes most striking, however, even as the laughter intensifies, is how much harder it’s become to talk about race. As Norris and these fine actors erase the comforting distance of time, “Clybourne” proves as unsettlingly immediate as it is exhilarating.

The show is very successful at highlighting the difference 50 years makes.  One of the most fascinating changes for me was the change in how we relate to pregnancy.  In the 1950’s, women still wore tight, boned girdles well into their third trimester.  Accordingly, the actress playing the pregnant Betsy in Act I is dressed in a tight skirt and girdle and has trouble sitting down and walking up steps.  In Act II, the pregnant Lindsey is clothed in yoga pants and a stretchy t-shirt that fully shows off her growing baby bump.  She moves around with remarkable ease!
Production photographs by Erik Tomasson
Update:
Go behind the scenes to see the dramatic set change from Act I to Act II!
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