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Starring in Theatre Baton Rouge's 'Clybourne Park' are, from left, Shelbi Wambles as Betsy, David Hanks as Karl, Phyllis Horridge as Bev, Robby Wilson as Russ, Allyson Lee as Francine, Ren Price as Albert and Travis M. Daigle as Jim.

In the first part of Theatre Baton Rouge's production of "Clybourne Park," Black people are moving into an all-White neighborhood.

Fifty years later in Act Two, White people are attempting to gentrify Clybourne Park, which is now an all-Black neighborhood.

Then and now, the residents are uneasy with the prospective changes.

The questions Bruce Norris asked in his 2010 play are still relevant in 2021, with race relations at the forefront in America. That's one reason Andrew Nathan Vessel jumped at the chance to direct "Clybourne Park."

"This is happening in our backyard," he said. "It's slowly starting to happen in Baton Rouge. People living in low-income neighborhoods are starting to see things change around them. But is this change coming with ill intent or is it coming from a place of people wanting to help these communities?"

"Clybourne Park" runs from March 25 to March 28 on the TBR Main Stage, 7155 Florida Blvd. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. with the Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at theatrebr.org.

Norris loosely based his story on Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 classic, "A Raisin in the Sun," exploring the adversity surrounding a Black family's decision to move from Harlem to the all-White Clybourne Park after receiving an insurance settlement.

Norris' play picks up where Hansberry's left off, moving in Act Two set in the same house in present day.

The same cast performs both acts with each actor playing two parts. 

"With 50 years separating them, the characters in each act live in two different worlds, with completely different societal conditions and life circumstances," said Robby Wilson.

Wilson plays grieving father Russ, whose son died by suicide after being shunned by the community upon his return from the Korean War. In Act Two, he is the affable Dan, who is renovating the property.

"I've portrayed a lot of characters through the years, some good, some bad," Wilson said. "I've been far more uncomfortable playing Russ than almost any of the outright villains I've played before. He isn't a bad guy and, in fact, the little interaction he has regarding the issue of race seems to paint him as fairly progressive. But then, near the end of the act, he reacts in a way that shows he still holds a very 1950s attitude toward race relations.

"It's uncomfortable because it made me realize, no matter how 'enlightened' I feel I am today, had I been born in a different time or to different parents, I could very easily have grown up with some very ugly feelings and prejudices."

Allyson Lee experiences the differences between the two acts through the eyes of two Black characters, Francine and Lena.

"The biggest difference is that Francine has more restraints as a Black woman in the 1950s, especially working for a White family," she said. "In order to make a living, she cannot speak her mind without facing deadly consequences."

But circumstances have changed when Lena comes onto the scene.

"She has the ability to speak freely and definitely embodies that," Lee said. "However, the two ladies are still connected by the fact that Black women often face the frustration of being overlooked or unheard."

Ren Price plays Albert and Kevin, also Black characters from two different eras. He found sticking to the lines difficult at times.

"The biggest challenge for me with these characters is finding reasons not to speak," he said. "That sounds funny, but as much as Ren wants to come out of his characters and give the other characters a piece of my mind, I have to quiet my inner self and justify my silence amid chaos."

Price added that the play has taught him just how much history repeats itself "in the most surprising and discreet ways."

Finally, there's David Hanks, who plays Karl, the only character from "A Raisin in the Sun" in the first act and an academic named Steve in the second.

"At the center of the play is a footlocker," he said. "To me, it symbolizes all the horrors and scars of the past we wish we could bury and never confront again."

But, he added, the past cannot stay buried and a reckoning must occur.

"Today, with protests and demonstrations for justice, hopefully progress will be made toward healing, but people must first be willing to honestly and openly confront the past," he said. "Hopefully, that is one message the audience takes home."


Email Robin Miller at romiller@theadvocate.com