Beyond black and white

HARRISBURG – On two separate September afternoons 50 years apart, a modest bungalow in northwestern Chicago, Ill., becomes a contested site in the politics of race.

Open Stage of Harrisburg continues its run of “Clybourne Park” through May 3 with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. matinees on Sundays at the Angelo Family Theatre, 223 Walnut St.

Starring in “Clybourne Park” is area favorite Stuart Landon. Continuing to have a faithful following after acting stints at Mill Hall’s Millbrook Playhouse and Boiling Springs’ Allenberry Playhouse, Landon has been manager of marketing and sales operation for nearly four years and is frequently featured on-stage in Open Stage productions.

Landon said “Clybourne Park” was selected by Donald L. Alsedek, Open Stage’s artistic director and founder, for many reasons: “A number of years ago, an actor … told Don that he should look the play up. About the same time, the publisher or playwright pulled all the copies and you couldn’t find it anywhere,” he said. “The play eventually went to Broadway and soon thereafter, it became available for licensing. So I guess that you might say it’s been a long courtship.”

Penn State Centre Stage also did a stellar production a few years ago.

Playwright Fred Norris was inspired by “A Raisin In the Sun,” a landmark 1959 play by Lorraine Hansberry that related the fact-based story of a black family’s struggles after moving into the fictional all-white Chicago neighborhood of Claybourne Park.

Only one character is retained from “A Raisin in the Sun”: Karl, the smirky representative from the Claybourne Park Improvement Association, who clumsily tries to convince the sellers to void the sale. Landon plays Karl in Act I, and in a role reversal plays Steve in Act II, who is asked by the black owners to reconsider their plans to demolish the home for a grocery chain.

“Playing two roles in this play is … a challenge,” Landon said. “And Karl and Steve couldn’t be more difficult. That has been exciting to explore and create.”

In 1959, Russ and Bev, still grieving over their son’s post-Korean War suicide, decide to move to the suburbs. The play kicks off when they discover that they inadvertently have sold the house to the neighborhood’s first black family. This proposed sale turns out to be a powder keg of tension, anger and hypocrisy.

Jump ahead 50 years to 2009, and now the neighborhood is ripe for gentrification and the bungalow is again ready to change hands. But now, the buyers are a young white couple who plan to demolish the house. Not only does this well-meaning couple have a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, but they echo some of the same sentiments over territory and legacy heard 50 years previously.

Although it won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, “Claybourne Park” has loads of laughs, mainly in Act II with many offensive jokes that zero in on gender, race, housing and sexual preference.

Landon acknowledges that the play is “quite challenging to memorize. The playwright is very specific as to how he wants his dialogue spoken. Which is awesome and also a curse.” Landon is referring to the stylized, staccato dialogue which his character spits out in his futile attempts to keep the neighborhood from changing.

Running two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission, “Claybourne Park” is a cleverly constructed examination of the way neighborhoods and attitudes change over time – or maybe it confirms that core attitudes never really change.

The twin time frame, the same house setting and the double casting of the actors add to the impact of the play’s sharp, enlightening dialogue. There is a haunting pathos interwoven with sardonic laughs that make “Claybourne Park” a neighborhood worth visiting.

For more information, contact Open Stage at 717-232-OPEN (6736).