Q&A: “Clybourne Park” Director Pam MacKinnon on Challenging Audiences on Issues of Race

Q&A: “Clybourne Park” Director Pam MacKinnon on Challenging Audiences on Issues of Race
From left: Frank Wood, Annie Parisse, Christina Kirk, Jeremy Shamos, Damon Gupton, and Crystal A. Dickinson in "Clybourne Park."
(Courtesy The O & M Co. / Photo by Nathan Johnson)

If the  nuances of race, rage, and marriage emerge with searing clarity in “Clybourne Park,” Bruce Norris’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner now on Broadway,  a good part of the credit goes to director Pam MacKinnon. She directed the world premiere of the acclaimed drama — which riffs off the 1959 Lorraine Hansberry classic, “A Raisin in the Sun”  — at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons in 2010, a task she repeated for a run at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and is now doing on Broadway. Each production has featured the same seven-member ensemble. In two acts, separated by fifty years, racial and marital tensions come to a boil as characters, unloosed from their  moorings, lash out at  each other.  In the first, civic leader Karl Lindner attempts to convince a couple, mourning the suicide of their son, to  rescind the sale of their Clybourne Park bungalow from the Youngers, the family in “Raisin” who pioneer integration of the white neighborhood. In the second, a black couple from the property owners association attempts to impress the legacy of that same bungalow upon a white couple who are part of a 2009 wave of gentrification.

MacKinnon,  who was born in Chicago, had a peripatetic childhood in Toronto and Buffalo before majoring in economics and political science at the University of Toronto and the University of California, San Diego. Moving to New York at age 27, she has been a fixture at prestigious regional theaters such as the La Jolla Playhouse,  Chicago’s Steppenwolf,
and Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage. MacKinnon is also the known as a go-to director for the works of Edward Albee. In fact, she will be directing the 50th anniversary production of his “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” starring Amy Morton and Tracy Letts, on Broadway this fall. MacKinnon admits to still being somewhat intimidated by Albee, but has an easy-going relationship with Norris, who was once her cat sitter, and whose acerbic 2006 play “The Unmentionables” she previously directed. “Having been an actor, Bruce understands that the playwright’s job is to write something active which the actors can really bite into,” she says of Norris. “From the get go there is something going on in the lives these very complicated characters.” MacKinnon recently spoke with ARTINFO about how those complications can unsettle and provoke audiences in “Clybourne Park.” 

Did either you or Norris have any reservations about taking on a play as iconic as “Raisin in the Sun”? Especially by a white male playwright?
I’ve know Bruce for seventeen years and he often talked about “Raisin in the Sun” as being very important to him long before he wrote “Clybourne Park.” As an actor, he always spoke about playing Karl Lindler, the one white character who comes and tries to talk the Youngers out of moving into the neighborhood. This is a very problematic character, which gives some insight into Bruce’s interests — that he’s attracted to the antagonist. We talked a lot about that. Lorraine Hansberry is so wildly different from Bruce but she wrestles with family and intellect and heart and politics in the way that he hops back and forth. His is not a social comment play. But as a white man having grown up in the suburbs of Houston, he is tackling these issues from a white male perspective and, though it sounds reductive, he’s interested in that critique.

Having seen “Clybourne Park” at Playwrights Horizons, I was struck by how clarified the anger had become in this production, which makes it both more lacerating and funny.
Bruce is interested in exploring anger and I knew that what we had to activate in the actors was a veneer of sociability, a veneer of politeness under which things are really roiling. And I hope that we are able to tap into something that is really rich and not just the generic “I-am-now-loud-and-forceful,” which is often the bad rap on anger in the theater. We really talked very specifically about the nuances of anger: “Okay, when is the lid still on and when does it come off? And what is the trigger?” In the case of Russ, it is the bottomless pit of the loss of his son. And that’s very different from Steve’s anger, which stems from “Am I not allowed to speak my mind?”

What makes it funny?
It’s recognizable, I think, and it’s a catharsis if it’s timed right. It falls into that delicious realm of I wish I were able to do that.

Having worked on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” did that help create the portraits of marriages in the play?
Yeah. Bruce has written about marriage as much as race and real estate. A huge strength of the play is that we’re seeing marriages under tremendous stress, they’re such tinderboxes, we see them stretched to their limit. In the second act, Lindsey is trying to lower the stakes and turn a fraught meeting into a social situation. You just know that she has asked Steve to leave his provocateur character at the doorstep and he just can’t help himself. In fact, that pre-act warning just sets him off. We’re seeing these marriages at their worst. But I do think they survive. These are resilient people he has created.

There is a moment in the first act when Russ is brandishing a shovel and his wife, Bev, is staring off, that reminded me of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Was that intentional?
I like that analogy, but it wasn’t planned in any sort of way. This is an all-American couple who’ve gone through these terrible events and now they just have each other. It’s the calm after the storm. How do you go on? Those silent moments were really important. Bruce is so language-oriented and these people are quick-witted and just go, go, go, so I wanted those silent moments to breath.

Bruce Norris has said in past interviews that he’s surprised he’s a liberal because he has a rather pessimistic worldview. As he put it, “There’s something essentially rotten in human nature that will not allow us to resolve our problems.”
The very fact that Bruce is a playwright tempers his pessimism. What I think Bruce’s message in “Clybourne Park” is that we, as a species, have some core things. We are tribal. We have this piece of property and that is why we go to war, to defend it. As Steve says, “The history of America is the history of private property.” Bruce’s plays are really rich in characters who take some weird and interesting twists in the road. That’s true of “Clybourne Park” and true of his play “Unmentionables” in which a good liberal takes these tiny baby steps that suddenly lead him to condone torture. Bruce takes something which is a real puzzle — intellectual, philosophical and emotional — and fleshes it out, creates these funny, nasty worlds not to provide any answers but to explore and investigate.

With a play about social issues, audiences can tend to be somewhat smug and self-satisfied if they perceive that it reflects their liberalism. Are you aware of that with this play? Did you feel it was important not to let them off the hook?
There is a theater-going audience that feels a dramaturgical need to find a hero, a more liberal and more forward-thinking character who tells off the “bad racist.” Russ’s speech does that in Act I, but he does it in such a specific and odd way that there’s no way you can conclude that he’s doing it to integrate the neighborhood. In Los Angeles more so than here, that speech quite often got applause. That was very disturbing to me. Frank [Wood] and I worked very hard to thwart that through body language, inflection, and action. That also happens when Steve says that he’s offended by people who wear yellow magnets to support “a bullshit war” and that’s cut short by Kevin stepping forth and saying, “I’ve got three on my car to support family who are serving.” It has been my job to say, How can we tell a more nuanced story when the audience is trying to hijack us into, “Yes, that’s what we want to believe! That’s what we want to say!” Bruce totally eschews that kind of heroics, but there is a portion of the audience that tries to look for the black hats and white hats and make it into a story that says “We’re not culpable.”

Are you optimistic about making progress in racial relations, a conversation we’ve been having for hundreds of years?
I am optimistic. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just my nature. Day to day, certainly, in this political climate where it feels political platforms can be fueled more by hate and fear mongering rather than actual policy making, hasn’t put a spring in my step. And though I know this is not about racial relations, but the fact that the shareholders of Citigroup can say “enough” when it comes to executive compensation is a very good thing. Wait a second, we are really thinking human beings and we do have agency. We are allowed to say no! This doesn’t need to continue. But this does involve an admission of culpability. Because we have to take the blame for having gotten to a particular space. But it’s important to take that scary step and say, ‘Okay, I’m a going to try and stop this.” 

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