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.
TR: Does producing allow you a better vehicle for creating that type of experience than acting does — and will you keep doing it?
WP: I've always done both, and I'll continue to do both concurrently. Producing is just as creative as acting for me. The reason I became a part of Clybourne Park is because of the actors on the stage marrying their talent with the material — I was like, I want to see this art grow. I love this play, I love these actors, this director.
Right now I'm shooting the third season of Treme; in January I'm dong a movie called Parker; and this summer I'm going to be filming in Paris — hopefully a movie, Mobilius.
TR: Clybourne Park deals with race through the lens of segregated neighborhoods. In your real life, I know you've taken on the issue of access to healthy food in black communities. Talk about that.
WP: First of all, obesity is a personal challenge for me. If you see me, you know I'm fighting a battle with obesity. So it's a very personal issue for me. And I saw that health was something that needed attention in underserved communities in New Orleans as we try to recover in the city — there was a scarcity of access to fresh food. There are food deserts.
So I was inspired by Michelle Obama's initiative and saw an opportunity to do well and do good by putting Sterling Farms stores in areas that didn't have access to fresh, healthy food; we also have convenience stores called Sterling Express. So we have three [Sterling Farms] stores in process right now and one convenience store open.
Read The Root's review of a previous staging of Clybourne Park here.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer.