4 Questions With Treme’s Wendell Pierce

The actor and Clybourne Park producer hopes a play about race makes you laugh in an uncomfortable way.

Wendell Pierce (Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)
Wendell Pierce (Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

The Pulitzer Prize- and Olivier Award-winning play Clybourne Park, which borrows elements from Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking A Raisin in the Sun, opened Thursday night on Broadway in New York City at the Walter Kerr Theatre for a 16-week run. The production examines race relations in 1959 and in modern-day Chicago through the story of a changing neighborhood and its black and white residents.

Producer Wendell Pierce talked to The Root about the role of art in communicating difficult social messages and what he’s doing to benefit underserved black communities in real life.

The Root: What’s the story that Clybourne Park uses to deliver its message about race?

Wendell Pierce: It starts out in 1959, when a house on Clybourne Street in Chicago is sold to an African-American family, and it raises questions: Who is the family selling the house? What was the situation that caused the family to sell the house?

Later you see the black family leave, and in 2009, after the neighborhood has changed into an African-American community, you see a young white couple is buying the house. Through their story, you get this hilarious satire about race, real estate, gentrification, everything.

TR: You say it’s hilarious. But it can be tricky to treat race lightly. How have black and white audiences reacted to the play?

WP: Well, satire is not something that’s purely for the humor. It’s about finding what’s profoundly moving in it — it’s about finding the irony and using humor to make a provocative statement.

The play is much more complex than just comedy. It’s not as monolithic as that. It’s multifaceted. The first step always has to be an ability to have the discussions about difficult issues. And once we find a way to do that, ultimately, what we can get back to is the humanity that we all share and how we tend to cloud that understanding.

As far as reactions, those friends that I know who have gone, black and white, have said it’s so honest and authentic. They’ve said people in the audience have to laugh but in a very uncomfortable way. And I always feel that’s the role of art — to be the forum for that type of experience in the community.