"ONE OF the functions of art should be so people think and discuss how it relates to their community," says SCAD Performing Arts professor and Artistic Director Sharon Ott.
The college’s latest production, Clybourne Park, will do just that.
Selecting a contemporary piece that explores the intersections of community, history, and race is an unexpectedly bold move for the department and the school as a whole. As the play’s director, Ott is thrilled to present a piece that’s challenging not only for the audience, but for the cast, as well.
“I would say it is edgier than the work we’ve done before,” she says. “But we also feel that we’re ready to take that on as a department, and as a university. We don’t want to shy away from material that not everybody, maybe, will love, and that has a little bit of a contemporary edge to it.”
The heralded production expands upon Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun. Act I opens in 1959 as characters Russ and Bev sell their two-bedroom home, located in an all-white neighborhood, to an African-American family.
“It tries to probe why they sold the house, how it came to be and just the racial dynamic in that neighborhood,” says Ott, who likens the area of Clybourne Park to “the world of The Help.”
Act II fast-forwards to 2009, where we find a yuppie couple planning to tear down the historic home. Though Clybourne Park is a fictional neighborhood, the story speaks directly to the gentrification of Chicago neighborhoods like Lincoln Park, and creates an even broader dialogue regarding race and class in America.
Though it was written merely six years ago, Ott notes that the questions Norris brings up in his script are perhaps even more pertinent in 2015.
“Between when he wrote it and now, we’ve had all these incidents like Ferguson,” she says. “It’s created a national dialogue of whether we really are in a post-racial society or not.”
It’s heavy, challenging material—a large reason why the cast is comprised exclusively of graduate students—but Ott assures that there’s a dark and familiar humor to the play.
“It’s quite funny,” she says. “It’s a lot about language, and people who don’t have the right language to talk to one another. It’s being honest about things we maybe don’t want to say out loud, but think, in terms of prejudice.”
She offers an example of a white woman in the second act, who, in a fit of frustration and attempt at rationalization, blurts out, “Half of my friends are black!”
“Of course, she doesn’t really have any African-American friends,” Ott laughs. “There’s an African-American person she works with. It’s a very funny line, and it’s one that, likely, many of us who are white have said.”
Ott’s very excited for the department to be presenting such a highly decorated play: since its February 2010 debut, Clybourne Park has been awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play, the 2011 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play, and the 2010 London Critics Circle Award for Best New Play.
“We’re presenting something considered by theatre critics to be right at the forefront of contemporary writing,” says Ott proudly. “It’s a lot like Angels in America was ten years ago.”
There’s a clear and direct correlation between Clybourne Park’s gentrification and Savannah’s. Specifically, Ott mentions the City of Savannah’s plans to tear down the Meldrim Row houses—historic cottages built in 1882 for African-American workers—to build a new Savannah-Chatham police station.
“The argument of the African-American female character is that the house of her great-aunt has historical merit,” says Ott. “The white yuppie couple who comes to the neighborhood wants to knock it down and build a bigger home. Her argument has to do with the history of the neighborhood, which is so much of a dialogue in certain parts of Savannah.”
The relation of Clybourne Park’s story to Savannah will be explored even deeper in a panel discussion moderated by SCAD BFA Senior and Assistant Director Brandall Jones on Friday, February 27. Panelists include Jeremy Lister, SCAD MFA candidate who plays the roles of Karl Lindner and Steve in Clybourne Park, Darryl Thompson, professor of Theatre and Speech at Savannah State University, Christina David, professor of History at Savannah State University, Jim Simpson, pastor at City Church, Marc Roark, professor at Savannah Law School specializing in urban litigation, and, most notably, Mayor Edna Jackson.
It was an unexpected surprise to have the mayor agree to join in the discussion. “We sent her the play and talked about the issues the play addressed that are relevant to Savannah, and she agreed to participate,” Ott says.
Roark even came in to talk to actors who will portray lawyers in Act II.
“It was fascinating,” marvels Ott. “He talked about how a house isn’t a physical structure—it really embodies all the stories of the people who lived in it.”
SCAD welcomes the Savannah community to come add their voice to the narrative and enjoy exploring Clybourne Park’s message as portrayed by a talented cast.
“It has a lot of points that are very important for the community,” states Ott. “I think it will generate a lot of discussion.”