Clybourne Park; Manawa

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

By Bruce Norris; Directed by Ross Jolly
Circa One | September 8-October 6

Communities change, that’s just the reality”, pontificates one character in the serial-award-winning play, Clybourne Park. Bruce Norris uses his play as a forum to unpack how race and racism inform the way we use property and the function of communities.

Act one is in 1959 and it demonstrates the qualities and conventions of classic American living room dramas: big, broad shouldered characters confidently arrive at a house at a convenient time and boldly push emotions outwards until a tragic denouement. Russ (Gavin Rutherford) eats ice cream and pontificates on the etymology of the word “Neapolitan.” His wife, Bev (Nikki MacDonnell), worries as she packs up their recently sold house. We meet Karl (Andrew Foster), the cow licked Rotary member who demonstrates the best of 1950s fashion, and his deaf wife Betsy (Danielle Mason). Karl has taken issue with the new owners of the house because they’re black. The social spectrum is filled out by Francine (Nancy Brunning), the servant who just wants to go home for the day, local priest and all-round good guy, Jim (Paul Waggott), and Albert (Jade Daniels) the equally eager-to-help husband to Francine. The soap-box is passed around the room with gentle precision and the act ascends to a debate about the role race plays in a community.

Act two zooms ahead to 2009 and stylistically reveals modern tastes in American drama: metaphor-laden, socially focused writing impressive because of its density of ideas. We’re in the same house, now dilapidated and graffitied in a black community. Tom (Paul Waggott) argues with Lindsey (Danielle Mason) over the capital of Morocco. This time the debate concerns renovating the place, thus destroying all history tied up within the building. The second act is fiercely comic and satirical; imagine an episode of Friends written by the columnists of the New York Times.

Despite the second half being played out in a rather boring straight line, the sets and staging are detailed and well defined. Furthermore, the contrast in both stage pictures and performance between act one and two provide subtle commentary on how theatrical trends and tastes have shifted in the last 50 years.

The plot links between the first and second half, although providing a nice challenge to the attentive audience member, are tenuous and reasonably arbitrary. The same can be said of the mirroring of Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s classic drama. It’s a nice detail, and provides a layer of poignancy, but is not vital to the play.

No, the real beauty of this structural unity is its simplicity: at any given moment in history, human beings are doing and saying the same things, but under different names. Clyborne Park demonstrates we have always associated knowing the names of things with being well cultured and intelligent. Despite its annoyances we find a profound comfort in bureaucracy. We will always make assumptions based on race. We are always striving to form communities.

It is the formation of community that lies at the core of Clybourne Park. Satirically acknowledging the reductive “some of my best friends are black” line of argument, the play reveals how racism or race based prejudice is still alive and kicking, just under a different name. Forcing us to jump of our historical high horse and look at what’s really changed in the way we negotiate issues of race, Clyborne Park is vital viewing.

*   *   *

Presented by Tikapa Productions
By Jamie McCaskill; Directed by Regan Taylor
Circa Two | September 15-October 13

Manawa sees two convicted criminals, one Maori and one Samoan, share a cell in remand prison. Jimmy King is a renowned criminal who has indecently exposed himself to a journalist. Mau Vaiaga, a recent Samoan immigrant, has killed and eaten a Kakapo. Manawa (Maori for heart), written by Jamie McCaskill, explores the ironies of how New Zealand perceives crime, and the flaws of our media and legal system. Together, these two crimes serve to highlight two key social issues in a hilarious and thought-provoking way.

Jimmy King (Jamie McCaskill) is a recidivist criminal, and indecently exposing himself to a journalist is only the latest in a spree of crimes that began at age 13. In and out of prison, he highlights our legal system’s inability to correct criminal behaviour. And it isn’t just that prisons aren’t working, apparently “home detention is like putting a sausage roll in front of a fat chick and saying she can’t eat it.” Mau Vaiaga (Natano Keni) put his trust in the wrong folk and ended up killing a delicious, plump-breasted Kakapo. The public and the media seem absurdly obsessed with this crime against a symbol of New Zealand identity, and, with Boston Legal flair, the proceedings are played out with aplomb and social resonance. Our two criminals are represented by Waimanae Huia (Kali Kopae), a lawyer with an ulterior motive. During the play, the cases capture the attention of the media and talkback vox pop sequences are delightfully polarising.

As the two cellmates get to know each other, we get to know their past. We flash back to see their crimes enacted, and jump in and out of their court cases and meetings with their lawyer. The play’s structure is exciting; we jump from scene to scene, and location to location with theatricality and style. A live musician, Simon Donald, provides jazz tunes to underscore the action while also filling in some of the smaller characters.

The set (Brian King), a series of corrugated iron panels painted with a sunny day and plain furniture, is a clever invocation of prison life, and is beautifully lit by Jennifer Lal.

It’s satire at its sharpest. Manawa works because it takes the right things seriously; we can accept the slightly absurd case and the sketchy lawyer because at its core are two beautiful and detailed characters played with integrity and, yes, manawa.

Filed under: ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

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Samuel Phillips is the Wellington theatre editor for The Lumière Reader. When he isn’t reviewing theatre he can be found making theatre with Wellington-based company, Bright Orange Walls, or studying at Victoria University of Wellington.