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Oliver Kaderbhai: "Clybourne Park throws a grenade into white conversation"

Oliver Kaderbhai: "Clybourne Park throws a grenade into white conversation"

Oliver Kaderbhai: "Clybourne Park throws a grenade into white conversation" cover photo on Stagedoor
Lyn Gardner interviews the director of a revival of Bruce Norris's controversial, shockingly funny play.

It is interesting talking to director Oliver Kaderbhai, currently preparing for a revival of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park at the Park Theatre next month, during a week in British politics in which language and its casual misuse has been shown to have consequences.

On the day that Boris Johnson’s discredited claim in the Commons that Keir Starmer had protected Jimmy Savile during his time as director of Public Prosecutions led to the Labour leader being set upon by a group of anti-vaxxers, Kaderbhai is talking about how “words matter”. Norris’ scabrously and often shockingly funny Pulitzer-winning Clybourne Park is, he thinks, a play which demonstrates that in no uncertain terms, both provoking an audience and challenging them. “With Boris Johnson being lambasted for his use of language it feels very much like a play of the moment.”

Kaderbhai’s revival, which was due to open in 2020 and got tantalisingly close – it managed a dress rehearsal before the pandemic closed it down — will be the first time this American play about race, real estate and gentrification has been seen in London since its 2010 Royal Court premiere and subsequent West End transfer. The irony is not lost on Kaderbhai that he’s staging it in Finsbury Park, an area of London that has seen galloping gentrification over the last 15 years.

Taking its inspiration from 1959 classic, A Raisin in the Sun by black writer Lorraine Hansberry, which focussed on a black family who dream of moving to a white Chicago suburb called Clybourne Park, Norris’ cleverly structured piece comes in two acts.

In the first, it is 1959 and in Clybourne Park, grief-stricken Bev and Russ are preparing to move home after the suicide of their Korea-veteran son. The local residents' association are all for loving thy neighbour but not if it affects the value of their properties. The couple have sold their house to a black family and the other residents want the sale stopped. The second act fast forwards to 2009, when a gentrifying white couple are trying to buy the same house in a now predominantly black community.

As he did in The Pain and the Itch, Norris uses comedy with lethal intent, detonating jokes that skewer the hypocrisies, racisms and resentments that lurk behind liberal pieties, euphemisms, and politically correct language. He once said he wrote the play “because I like arguments.” Kaderbhai says that part of the pleasure of the piece “is in watching these people digging themselves into holes and wondering how they are going to get out of them.”

Kaderbhai is interested in the way shifting politics and social change impact on language and the way we use it. He began thinking of a revival of Clybourne Park after the Brexit vote in 2016 when he says “as a mixed race person born and brought up in the UK who felt I knew this country there was a sense that I suddenly didn’t know this country I called home. Brexit made people feel they had a licence to say things they otherwise might never have voiced.” He thinks that one of the powerful things about Clybourne Park is that “it throws a grenade into white conversation.” But he adds, “I don’t think it’s trying to offend but it is trying to make us have those difficult conversations that we don’t have.”

Production image from the 2011 West End run. Photo by Johan Persson.

Kaderbhai argues that one of themes in the play which he is interested in exploring is ownership. “It’s not just about ownership of things or property, but also ownership over one’s own behaviour and the way that people take ownership or try to control how other people behave. I think what Bruce is trying to do is make us look at why people say the things they do, where it comes from and what impact it has.”

Clybourne Park has amassed a mantelpiece of awards, but it has not been without detractors. The Young Vic’s Kwame Kwei-Armah has criticised the play for promoting the idea that “whites build, and blacks destroy” and wrote his own Raisin in the Sun inspired play, Beneatha’s Place, as a theatrical retort.

Kaderbhai is well aware that the play could land differently now in 2022 than it might have done back in 2020 before the death of George Floyd and the global impact of Black Lives Matter, and that it is a play which is brutally unapologetic in the way it itself uses language at a time when many feel increasingly nervous about what can and cannot be said. But he says that’s even more a good reason for it to be staged again.

“I think we are at a time of progress in terms of representation within society and that goes not just for race but also around gender, sexuality and other issues. But we keep having the same conversations and that slows progress.” He cites an example of being in an interview where he described himself as mixed race and was told by the interviewer that “you can’t say that anymore. Well, I’m describing myself so I should be able to do that entirely as I choose. So, while I think progress is being made, I still think that it comes down to language and people feeling they don’t know how to talk about these things.”

Some have described Clybourne Park as bleak in the way it suggests that people get stuck in cul de sacs of ignorance and prejudice and Norris himself has said that he believes that “every generation is one away from the Holocaust.” But Kaderbhai argues that’s why the play remains relevant, necessary and can begin the debates that eventually bring change.

“This is not a play which mollycoddles its audience, but it is one that sparks conversation. I want people to leave the theatre talking to each other about what they’ve seen, and arguing about it. If we can do that I will feel as if we have done the play justice.”

Cover image of the cast of Clybourne Park which runs at the Park Theatre from 16 Mar - 23 Apr 2022. Tickets can be found here.

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Lyn Gardner

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