Sharp and bracing as a Brazilian
“[The author] Bruce Norris looks at political correctness and gives it a short, sharp Brazilian,” says director and Circa councillor Ross Jolly, who secured the rights to the play last year prior to it winning a Pulitzer and then a Tony Award – a coup of which, he says, “we feel very pleased and very privileged.”
“I think in my 40+ years in the theatre it’s one of the most perceptive, funny, explosively politically incorrect plays I’ve come across,” he says.
Chocked with offensive jokes strewn through a plot that exposes the vicious attitudes around ownership, the play is set in Chicago and consists of two acts – the first in 1959, about half an hour after A Raisin in the Sun ends, the other in 2009 – eras so different it almost feels like two separate plays, says Andrew Foster. He plays Karl in the first act, the white neighbour determined to foil the home-buying efforts of a black family. Though racist, he’s married to a deaf woman and shows a clear sensitivity to her rights.
“The play casts goodies and baddies but no one sits clearly on one side,” says Foster, who calls this an “actor’s play” for that reason. “I’ve always found those conundrums and inconsistencies make a character real. Underneath the moral veneer of character we recognise those inconsistencies in ourselves. It makes characters likeable.”
The seven actors take on different characters in each act, deliberately scripted to raise eyebrows. “It’s so beautifully crafted,” says Foster, whose breadwinning alpha male is supplanted by a stay-at-home dad.
Jolly says he communicated extensively with Norris about certain features of the directing, such as ensuring that black actors play the black characters. “He was rather concerned it’s done as is,” says Jolly, who says it’s becoming more common for authors to reach out and try to prevent “wunderkind directors who upend it and put themselves centre stage. Some plays you can do that and sometimes it’s important to follow the intentions and blueprint of the writer.”
Though very American in setting and plot, Jolly and Foster agree that the issues of gentrification, racism lurking under pretensions of political correctness, and ownership, should chime true to New Zealand audiences, as the play fast forwards to 2009 and the house, lived in for years by a black family, flips once again to white buyers in what’s now a black neighbourhood.
“The house is another character. Who owns property? Gentrification is the ostensible issue but it goes down quickly to who owns what,” says Jolly. “As here, with the government trying to sell Mighty River Power.”
“The issue of political correctness is mirrored here as much as it is in American society,” he adds. “The play is subtly instructive, probing our little secret attitudes and opinions which these days we don’t speak.”
Clybourne Park, Circa Theatre, September 8-October 6.