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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Sept. 19, 2014

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The cast of "Clybourne Park" in Act 1 of Milwaukee Repertory Theater's 2012-13 production of "Clybourne Park."
The cast of "Clybourne Park" in Act 1 of Milwaukee Repertory Theater's 2012-13 production of "Clybourne Park." (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Laughing at racism

Everyone can agree: race – and racism – is one touchy subject. But it’s not something that the Milwaukee Repertory Theater – especially under the artistic direction of Mark Clements – has ever shied away from addressing.

This season, The Rep tackles race again – this time with comedy. Clements directs "Clybourne Park," which opened Jan. 29 at the Quadracci Powerhouse.

"Clybourne Park," written by Bruce Norris, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and London’s Olivier Award for Best Play, and tells a familiar story from a different point of view: the neighborhood where the black Younger family of Lorraine Hansberry’s "A Raisin in the Sun" attempts to purchase a house. The narrative looks at the neighborhood in 1959, and then fast-forwards 50 years to 2009, with the same actors playing different characters residing in the neighborhood.

Gerard Neugent has been acting with the Milwaukee Rep for 10 years, six of them as a member of the Resident Acting Company. He sat down with OnMilwaukee.com to talk about why it makes sense to approach a controversial subject like race in a comedic way.

OnMilwaukee.com: What’s it like to play Karl Lindner, a character that is not original to this play but to the beloved "A Raisin in the Sun?"

Gerard Neugent: "A Raisin in the Sun" is a jumping-off point. All of the stakes, except for Karl’s, are specific to this play. In "A Raisin in the Sun" they bought a house and in Clybourne Park they sell the house. He (Karl) tries so hard to do it diplomatically, but when you get right down to brass tacks it is what it is: he doesn’t want a black family to move into his neighborhood. And the reasons why, he would explain, are because they wouldn’t fit in, or the property values would go down – whatever they (the reasons) are in 1959 Chicago, he’s telling it like it is. It’s just a shame that he feels that way.

So to take that guy and then jump into this, it’s thrilling to me, in a way, to be able to be that guy. But what’s important is, I can’t have any preconceived notions about what people think of this guy. Because what Karl thinks is, he’s trying to do the right thing. Mark did ask me in rehearsal, "Do you think Karl’s a racist?" And I said, "Absolutely not." And I stand by that. He believes that he’s doing the right thing for his neighborhood. "It just won’t work, darn it!" is what he says.

OMC: This play deals with some pretty heavy issues – race, housing, desegregation, suicide. And yet it’s a comedy. What’s it like, as an actor, to address these topics in such a light-hearted way?

GN: The play is stupid funny, sometimes. I think the author knew what he was doing by trying to make some of this uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be uncomfortable. And hopefully when people laugh or don’t laugh – because there’s going to be nights where people are like, "Um, maybe I shouldn’t be laughing" so they’ll stay quiet – but I think afterwards people should reflect on why they were reacting the way they were. I mean, they (the play) hit everybody. They kind of make fun of every stereotype or Americanism we have as an entire country.

Especially in the second act (set in 2009), I always find that right before you say the word "race" you’re standing at a precipice. We can still get out of this. But the minute you say "race" – and I don’t say "racist" – you’re free-falling now. We could be having a completely normal conversation in the world of this play and if race is said, suddenly no one’s listening anymore. It’s just that word standing between. No one can listen when that comes into play. And that’s what the play talks about: we have to keep having that conversation.

OMC: Why is comedy such an effective way to approach this subject? How does comedy change the equation, so to speak?

GN: The best comedy is in a drama, or is part of drama. You can really make broad comic moments when you’re playing something straight as an arrow. I find you can actually get a laugh almost easier when you’re right in the (tense) moment. I think that if we were doing a play that dealt with race issues and went very serious, everyone would be really serious, and it would be fine, and we’d really tell a message. And that’s good. But what this play does – a great percentage of the audience will come in knowing that this will have to do with race, among other things, and they’re gonna sit like this (Looks down soberly). And then they get pulled at and knocked off their base a little bit and they’re going to start laughing at certain things, and I think that’s wonderful because it allows things like the suicide to be more poignant.

To have them laugh at the audacity of the kinds of things that Karl Lindner says is what works, because then when he’s making his point about the property values declining in this neighborhood, some people are going to go, "Oh my God, I understand that." That’s a terrible, unfortunate truth that goes along with this issue that needs to be talked about in 1959. That’s what comedy does: it allows things to come to the forefront and it allows you afterward to go, "Oh my God, I can’t believe I was laughing at that – what a jerk. Wait, am I the jerk?" The conversations that are going to come out of this play, not just in the theater but when you go home, are going to be fantastic.

OMC: You played Doug in "Gutenberg! The Musical!" this past fall. That was also a bold piece that got bit laughs in uncomfortable moments – jokes about dead babies and the Holocaust. Is this similar or different?

GN: I’ve used ‘Gutenberg’ as an example of what this play is sometimes. I’m with you 100 percent. Some people have seen the show and were afraid to laugh, and I said, "It’s like 'Gutenberg,' it’s like the dead baby quote." You could hear people’s minds going certain nights (during "Gutenburg") "That is, oh, I am not, supposed to laugh at that." "Oh, that is a bad joke. Oh, my gosh." Or some nights you’d get a pocket that’s not laughing and a pocket that thinks it’s hilarious.

I think that’s going to happen in this play a lot. You’re going to be laughing hysterically at something someone else isn’t, and vice versa. If something hits a little too close to home, someone might not laugh. "I don’t like that joke." If they think about why they’re not laughing, it might be because they feel that way a little bit, or maybe they’re offended at it. But then they’ll laugh at the priest joke or something, because that’s easier, you know? I think that will happen throughout the audience that different people will have the mirror held up to them.

OMC: You’re performing this play in Milwaukee – a city that is consistently called one of the most segregated in the nation. Are the audiences going to be able to identify with this situation faced by the characters?

GN: I hope so. I’ve talked to people that, when we were talking about the play, it’s really referenced outside of this place. "I didn’t know this kind of thing was happening in Chicago." I’m excited to keep having this conversation about, look here, look where we live right now. Drive downtown. What’s the difference? It’s certainly part of our conversation in the building and I hope that message can get out. It’s important that we hold the mirror up to ourselves. But you know, it’s a dialogue that the community needs to have – not a monologue. We can’t pound it on people.

Clybourne Park runs through Feb. 24 at the Quadracci Powerhouse, 108 E. Wells St. Visit milwaukeerep.com for more information.

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