Credit: Michael Brosilow

Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun concludes with the African-American Younger family leaving their dreary south-side apartment for a house in the all-white, fictional neighborhood of Clybourne Park. When the play premiered in 1959, some critics saw that as a happy ending. Hansberry didn’t. Referring to one misguided commentator, she told Studs Terkel, “If he thinks that’s a happy ending, I invite him to come live in one of the communities where the Youngers are going.”

Certainly, Raisin in the Sun never suggests that the Youngers will have an easy time fitting in with their new neighbors. Hansberry’s only white character, Karl Lindner of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, shows up with an offer to buy back the house because “the people of Clybourne Park” believe that “our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.” As one of the Youngers sardonically remarks, “This, friends, is the Welcoming Committee!”

Karl also shows up in Bruce Norris‘s Clybourne Park, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama and is currently receiving a tense, probing, provocative production from Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The first act of Norris’s play takes place on the day the Youngers rebuff Karl’s offer. Following that unsuccessful meeting, Karl hightails it over to the Youngers’ new address, having hatched a last-ditch scheme to persuade the vacating owners to rescind the sale.

Unfortunately for Karl, the vacating owners—middle-class, middle-aged Russ and Bev—are what a real estate agent would call motivated sellers. For one thing, Russ wants to be closer to his office in the burbs. For another, the Clybourne Park house is haunted by memories of their son: a shell-shocked, guilt-ridden Korean War vet who hanged himself in his room.

That was two and a half years ago, but for Russ and Bev the wound remains fresh. Played by John Judd with a gruffness shaded by a poignant sense of outrage, Russ has become foulmouthed and withdrawn. Kirsten Fitzgerald’s Bev, meanwhile, maintains a veneer of chatter and bustle whose strident edge betokens desperation and denial.

When Karl arrives bearing prophecies of plunging property values and white flight, he finds the couple with their minister, summoned by Bev to offer the increasingly surly Russ counsel and comfort. The clergyman takes up Karl’s cause, arguing for the separation of the races based on differences in diet and modes of worship. When Russ turns out to be unpersuadeable, the air of strained politeness—expertly calibrated in Amy Morton’s taut staging—gives way to an all-out row. Cliff Chamberlain, in particular, gives Karl a fascinating nervous energy suggesting the dangerous volatility bubbling beneath his squaresville facade.

Caught in the conflict’s crosshairs are the black maid, Francine, and her husband, Albert, who shows up to give her a ride home. They struggle to maintain a prudent neutrality as both sides try to draw them in. Karl uses them to illustrate his point about inherent racial differences (“Francine, may I ask: do you ski?”); absurdly, Bev holds up her relationship with Francine as an example of whites and blacks becoming close friends. Ultimately, the sale goes through not because Russ is a champion of desegregation but because he can no longer stomach neighbors who, for all their talk of community, treated his troubled son like a pariah.

After intermission, we revisit the house in 2009. Over the intervening 50 years Clybourne Park has become a predominantly black neighborhood that’s beginning to gentrify thanks to its desirable proximity to the Loop. The property’s new, white, yuppie owners are meeting with an upper-middle-class black couple from the neighborhood and a lawyer representing a community preservation group to discuss the yuppies’ plans to tear down the house and replace it with a garish McMansion. (The cast is the same as in act one.)

Again, strained politeness quickly gives way to outright hostility. This time, though, everybody’s educated and impeccably liberal and knows how to go into what one character calls the “euphemistic tap dance” we perform to avoid the big, bad, scary issue of race. Instead, they speak of “gentrification” and “certain groups” and the “history of the neighborhood.” All it takes is for someone to speak plainly, though, and before you know it Norris’s impeccable liberals are hurling racist jokes and threatening to beat one another up.

The second act of Clybourne Park lacks the emotional depth that the specter of the lost son gives to the first. Still, this uncompromising, often bitterly funny play makes a convincing case that the happy ending of racial integration is still far off.