Before mentioning the cast, the set or any major show details, the producer introducing Davidson’s recent production of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park asserted, “It is a comedy.” The crowd laughed at her introduction, and continued to laugh at the plentiful punchlines throughout the production. Yet, hoards of critics praise the racial commentary and conversation procured by the Clybourne Park. So much so, that it won a Pulitzer Prize, whose jury described it as, “a powerful work whose memorable characters speak in witty and perceptive ways to America’s sometimes toxic struggle with race and class consciousness.” (Piepenburg 1). Funny, that a play who relies so heavily on humor, specifically jokes about black people skiing and white people tap-dancing, can also be taken as such a profound source.
The dichotomy of comedy and content makes Clybourne Park the poignant play it is. However, the accomplishment of this coexistence required strategy on the part of Bruce Norris. New York Times theatre critic Erik Piepenburg remarked on Bruce Norris, “His fondness for provocation can trigger both gasps and laughter.” (1). And, that provocative nature allows Clybourne Park to act both as a comedy and conversation catalyst. As Piepenburg identifies, Clybourne Park “sets the conversation about race in everybody’s neighborhood.” (1). The play does not explain the entirety of racial conflict in Chicago, does not take a side, does not send the viewers home with a moral. Instead, Clybourne Park uses comedy to illicit a response and consequently stoke the flames in the discussion – not talking for the people, but getting the people talking with something easier to digest.
Right when the group almost gets down to business in Act Two, Tom’s phone rings interrupting the progress (55). His response causes the audience to laugh (fumbling and cursing). Norris included this incident not as Charlie Chaplin-esque slapstick comedy, rather to comment on the incessant preventing factors that halt discussions on race. Later a truck horn sounds while Lena talks (58), which makes the audience laugh, but also functions to make the same point. These disruptions in conversation occur throughout, and may be comedic, but Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times examined them for their thematic value:
The overriding joke is that, for all the strides that have been made in race relations, people are still having a devil of a time getting over their differences, which if anything have only multiplied over the last half century. (1)
These jokes allow Norris to posit this point with relative ease. Humor allows Norris to engage the audience better and subtly introduce the conflict. With Clybourne Park, Norris sparks the discussion of modern race and gentrification, instead of answering it. And as exhibited by the acclaim, audiences have been very responsive to his style.
Additionally, the jokes with punchlines also function with more complexity than basic comedic value. Kevin jokingly asks Steve “You know how to tap dance?”, upsetting Steve (74). Steve answers with prison-rape joke that leaves the actors silent, while making some audience members laugh out (a portion of viewers likely laugh out of discomfort). What does this say about Norris’s take on race? After the joke is made, he writes:
LENA. No, the problem with that joke, see, is that its not funny.
LINDSEY. No shit.
STEVE. (To Lindsey.) You laughed when I told it to you!!
LENA. And had it been a funny joke –
STEVE. It is funny. Yes it is. And and and and the reason it’s funny, is, is, is that it plays upon certain latent fears of — of — of — of white people, vis-a-vis the – (Norris 76).
The joke exhibits the scattered views on race, on what is offensive, and on how to respond in scenarios involving sensitive topics. Again, no moral is provided, but a conversation begins. The joke and its aftermath are a focal point of the play – not because it is funny, but because it is telling of how people use stereotypes and false representations. Furthermore, the joke presents a common moment of misunderstanding between people of different races. Immense tension in this scene reveals itself when this joke is told, and Norris makes the audience question why a “stupid” joke does this.
Comedy effectively introduces racial tension without making a viewer feel overwhelmed. Another instance of this taking place with great results occurs in Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing. Throughout, Lee includes humorous asides and conversations just like Bruce Norris. Meanwhile, Do the Right Thing ignites intelligent conversation in the same way Clybourne Park does. In the scene where Lee shows different Brooklyn residents insulting each other with racial stereotypes and slurs (see below), he tactically combines an entertainment factor with commentary on the rising resentment between various groups in the community. Despite functioning as a Comedy-Drama, Do the Right Thing is regarded by scholars as a highly insightful film about race. Soon after Do the Right Thing premiered, critics applauded its thematic complexity and humor, with Los Angeles Times author Sheila Benson writing “he was interested in different types within the same strata, and humor was clearly going to be his weapon.” (1). Undoubtedly, Spike Lee employed humor as a tool to discuss more serious issues. And with Clybourne Park, Norris followed in this vein to further establish comedy’s position in social commentary.
Sometimes audience members are jarred by humor combined with genuine discussion. Even I found this practice confusing during my first reading of Clybourne Park. But, the technique functions exceptionally well in practice. Through comedy, Norris manages to effectively introduce the topics of racism and gentrification without preaching. His content is provocative, clever, funny, and gets people talking. The play doesn’t teach lessons, it leads people to discuss the topic. One might question this method, perhaps suggesting that the comedy demeans the rest of the work. But, considering the impact Clybourne Park has made as a counterpart to A Raisin in the Sun, the comedic and thematic influence appears quite significant.
Benson, Sheila. “The Evolution of Spike Lee.” Editorial. Los Angeles Times 9 July 1989: n. pag. Los Angeles Times. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
Do the Right Thing. Dir. Spike Lee. Perf. Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson. Universal Pictures, 1989. Online.
McNulty, Charles. “‘Clybourne Park’ at San Francisco’s A.C.T.” Editorial. Los Angeles Times 28 Jan. 2011: n. pag. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 28 Jan. 2011. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
Norris, Bruce. Clybourne Park. New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc, 2012. Print.
Piepenburg, Erik. “Integration, Gentrification, Conversation.” Editorial. New York Times 3 Aug. 2011: n. pag. New York Times. The New York Times Company, 3 Aug. 2011. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.
I pledge on my honor that this work is entirely my own, that its entire composition was done in compliance with the Davidson College Honor Code, and that I am unaware of any violations of the Honor Code by other students.