The nomadic 5 & Dime is pressing us out of our comfort zone again on a subject many Americans try to bury and ignore — race.
In April, Al Letson’s John Coffey Refuses to Save the World reminded us how popular stories skew our views with imaginary, magical Negroes. Now, director Rick De Spain and company unleash the Pulitzer and Tony award-winning Clybourne Park, which hits close to home on white privilege, institutional racism and the pursuit of the American Dream.
For artistry, ambition and strong acting as a group, The 5 & Dime scores again, with a creative team that must be applauded not only for their execution but also for their aspiration.
The romance of this troupe must be weighed against the hardships that come from acting without a home. All of Jacksonville’s makeshift stages come with their impediments.
In the John Coffey production at the Museum of Science & History, the short stage proved a hindrance, though the gamble to use the Planetarium’s wizardry was inspired.
At the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, space is less of a problem, but the gallery-turned-stage loses its charm in a matinee — as light peeks in from those celebrated gardens.
Supporting players Josh Waller, Lindsay Curry and Larry Knight hold our gaze with every second they’re on stage, helping Clybourne Park overcome the chaos inherent in its script.
Local favorite Josh Waller — sure to be in the running for Best Actor in Folio Weekly’s Best of Jax contest (end shameless plug) — plays the segregationist Karl, the entitled protector of the Clybourne property values. Somehow, he injects humor into this offensive, racist character.
Curry hits every note with spot-on comedic timing in both roles — as Karl’s deaf wife Betsy in Act I and as the apologetic “I once dated a black man” Lindsey in Act II. The expressive and charming Knight delivers his own humor as Albert in Act I, reminiscent of his title role in John Coffey, but the intensity he brings to Act II’s Kevin demonstrates his range.
The drama’s two acts are set 50 years apart with the same actors in different roles. Clybourne Park examines the fight to keep the first “colored family” (wait, “don’t we say Negro now?”) from moving into an all-white neighborhood in 1959. Act II revisits the house as white buyers aim to purchase the house, knock it down and rebuild it unlike anything else in the neighborhood, despite reservations from the local housing board.
There are hints, but this staging doesn’t reveal that Clybourne Park has a deep connection to a classic. This is the white family that sells its house to the Youngers of A Raisin in the Sun. Karl refers to his visiting the Youngers and failing in his attempt to bribe them out of the neighborhood.
Even before Karl’s arrival, we observe the dynamics of Russ and Bev (played by Dave Alan Thomas and Amy Noel Canning), a couple still grieving the death of their son with their tension laid bare in a conversation that begins on the subject of Neapolitan ice cream, symbolism as obvious as the “Black and White Cookie” of Seinfeld fame.
One might wish that Thomas traded some of Russ’ ferocity for a little more stillness. His intensity bubbles below the surface only for a moment. His outbursts prove entertaining but leave little room for Canning to work.
Canning faces the tough task of playing the keep-it-all-together Edith Bunker role, handling Russ’ anxiety with her own neuroses and revealing what a stumbling, condescending attempt at progressive open-mindedness might look like in a conservative 1950s’ Chicago neighborhood.
Karl’s arrival and refusal to leave push Russ over the edge, while the appearances of local pastor Jim (Pablo Milla) and their housekeeper Francine’s husband Albert (Knight) certainly don’t help. Jim urges Russ to talk about his son’s death, but Russ isn’t having it.
“I hate to have to put it this way, but what I think I might have to do is politely ask you to, well, to go fuck yourself,” Russ says.
All these characters revolve on stage together at times. This is playwright Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park at its best and worst — with audience members happily struggling to catch revealing nonverbal reactions from a seasoned cast. But that intended chaos along with that 50-year time shift between acts comes with a cost, with all characters serving the story but none given as much time as we’d like. This is, after all, contemporary American theater, so our pace must be brisk.
The play is about a whole lot of talk and very little communication — a criticism for our time. It’s also a reminder of the dances we perform when we dodge real talk about race — the second time in a row that 5 & Dime has brought that subject to the stage.
Even for a self-selecting, art-loving crowd at the Cummer Museum, it’s a conversation we must continue to have.