Having lived and traveled all over this great land of ours, I can say without reservation or equivocation that Boulder is one of the most racially homogenous places left in the United States. Despite its pronounced liberal bent and the fact that it wears its progressiveness like a pot-leaf-shaped badge of honor, Boulder is just about as white-bread as it gets. Certainly, other races are represented, but white folks make up such a super majority of Boulder’s populace that it is actually noteworthy when one sees an African-American (or, to put it in terms Prince might use, “person of the race formerly known as black”) walking down the street. Trust me — in most other parts of the country, that is simply not the case.
For that reason alone, I encourage all you overwhelmingly white, privileged, sheltered Boulderites to get out of the bubble and make the trek down to Denver for a performance of Clybourne Park. Continuing its tradition of bringing intelligent, challenging plays to the stage, the Curious Theatre Company opens its 14th season with the regional premiere of Bruce Norris’ 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning examination of racial issues both in contemporary America and in its more, er, black-and-white past.
Set in a residential neighborhood just outside downtown Chicago, Clybourne Park takes place almost entirely within a single house that, due to its geography and assorted random events, becomes the flashpoint for racial tension on two separate occasions.
Playwright Norris uses the two-act structure to its utmost by setting the first act in 1959 and the second 50 years later in 2009. As one might expect given the time frames involved, the central conflict of the first act revolves around the first African-American — at that time referred to as either “colored” or “Negro” depending on which character is speaking — family moving into the all-white neighborhood. In the second act, the situation is reversed, as a white couple attempts to move in to what has become an entirely African-American neighborhood.
The same seven cast members, Dee Covington, Cris Davenport, Josh Hartwell, C. Kelly Leo, ZZ Moor, Erik Sandvold and Andy Waldschmidt, appear in both the first and second acts. Interestingly, as no character from the first act shows up in the second act, none of the actors play the same roles from one act to the next. As usual, Director Chip Walton has assembled a crackerjack cast, and every one of them delivers an applause-worthy performance. Denver Center Theatre Company regular Erik Sandvold once again astounded me with his craft. In the first act, Sandvold’s Russ is the absolute center of things, both emotionally and in terms of the action on stage. He makes you feel every ounce of his sadness, rage and isolation. In the second act, he flips 180 degrees and plays a much more marginal character with a light and unaffected comic air. The contrast is incredible.
Sandvold is not alone in his ability to transform, however. Josh Hartwell goes from playing a well-meaning but extremely bigoted Rotary Club member in 1959 to playing an urbane yuppie facing unexpected community pressure of his own in 2009. What really amazed me about Hartwell’s performance, though, was that it took me until intermission before I was 100 percent certain of which role I’d seen him play in Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s An Empty Plate in the Café du Grande Boeuf a mere four and a half months ago. His physical appearance had not changed much at all — this is not a case of gaining 50 pounds and growing a Grizzly Adams beard — but he was virtually unrecognizable to me simply by virtue of his acting. Bravo, Mr. Hartwell, bravo!
A play like Clybourne Park strives to make its audience think as well as feel. The highest praise it can obtain is that people are still discussing and deconstructing it hours or days after seeing it. In my experience, post-performance discussion with my companion de nuit generally ends about 10 or 15 minutes after we leave the theater. With Clybourne Park, my theatre-mate and I debated various aspects of the play, often with considerable passion, for more than an hour. It’s just that good.