Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Rude joke is hardly black and white

Review: WHY are a white woman and a certain feminine hygiene product the same? If I give you the punchline I’ll never work again.

Clybourne Park
Oxford Playhouse
Tuesday, May 17

WHY are a white woman and a certain feminine hygiene product the same? If I give you the punchline I’ll never work again, but the Oxford Playhouse chief executive says this joke in Clybourne Park is the rudest she’s ever heard in a theatre.

Me too — and I’ll add in my rugby-playing days and even my six years on Fleet Street.

It comes as a shock in the dialogue, which throughout this play dances around the idea of racism without any of the characters seeming to face it head-on.

And then suddenly, shockingly, they do.

Clybourne Park is the darkest of black comedies with a serious intent at its heart and skilful exploitation of it from the playwright, Bruce Norris.

It’s set in two eras in a well-to-do suburb of Chicago. We start in the late Fifties when racism was still rife and institutionalised in the USA, and the second act moves us forward to exactly the same house 50 years later — with huge changes in attitude and acceptance but still bucketloads of prejudice.

Norris assumes, probably correctly, that it is human to develop a fortress against others, be they black or rich or poor — or anything which will upset their understanding of life.

This is biting drama, moving from shallow sitcom-like dialogue, to furious, intense confrontation and soul-searching, and then back again to the flippancy and patina of respectability.

The Fifties home sees it just about to be sold to a black family.

It’s a solidly prosperous white neighbourhood and this causes worry among the community, who remonstrate with the departing owners.

We learn that the place holds too many memories of a suicidal son — a young man who was unable to live with himself because he was responsible for a war atrocity in Korea. That hangs like a pall over the whole play and holds the key.

The owner challenges the neighbours and will not bend on the sale. But we soon see that this is not from some principle about racial equality — it’s because he wants to get his own back on the community who’ve shunned him since the son’s death.

Fifty years on, the language is different and so are the attitudes.

This time the prejudice is about architecture and whether a white family about to move in will compromise this still successful estate.

It seems like a neat turnaround and it is, but underlying it is a casual racism which has replaced the institutionalised sense of superiority from the Fifties.

But now the black people can fight back — and that’s where the rudest joke in the history of theatre comes in.

Part of the punchline uses the term stuck-up in two senses. One of which refers to a white woman’s snobbishness, the other...

Clybourne Park takes in a few more targets along the way — middle class ignorance is one — but the constant message is of just how tribal we are.

It doesn’t have to be a black tribe or white, it just describes a form of togetherness which excludes others.

You will laugh quite a lot, but you’re likely to emerge feeling sad as well.

Quite a feat for any writer, that.

Until Saturday.

By Mike Rowbottom

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