Living Green Victory Gardens Biograph Theater
If it were up to me, I would never compare Gloria Bond Clunie's Living Green with Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. In fact, I wouldn't compare more than a handful of American plays—a couple by Arthur Miller, a few by Eugene O'Neill—with Hansberry's towering saga of a working-class black family struggling against all the intolerance, ignorance, and psychological destructiveness pre-Civil Rights Act Chicago had to offer. If it were up to me, I'd compare Clunie's tidy dramedy with a "very special episode" of The Cosby Show.
But all of Victory Gardens Theater's promotional materials call the work, about an affluent suburban African-American couple contemplating a move back to Chicago's west side, a 21st-century homage to Hansberry's masterpiece, and key images in Clunie's script come directly from A Raisin in the Sun. So compare we must. And what's revealed is that Clunie, like most playwrights who ever drew breath, has a tenth of Hansberry's dramatic skill. But more importantly, the comparison suggests that—50 years after Raisin's searing, nuanced dissection of pressing social issues electrified Broadway—two hours of easy, blinkered thinking about similar problems can be mistaken for meaningful political engagement by one of America's premiere theaters.
In A Raisin in the Sun, the Younger family, led by proud, weary matriarch Lena, receives a sudden windfall of $10,000—proceeds from a life insurance policy on Lena's recently deceased husband. Convinced that he can bring the family out of poverty by becoming a conscience-free capitalist, Lena's son Walter wants to use the money to go in with questionable cohorts on a liquor store. Rebellious daughter Beneatha wants it for medical school, even though she can hardly manage guitar lessons. And Lena, the play's moral center, imagines she can buy her family a little house and a new life on the north side, despite the fact that other black families that tried the same thing had their homes firebombed. In nearly every moment of the play, Hansberry dramatizes a family's heart-breaking struggle against a predicament from which there's no escape.
Clunie, on the other hand, dramatizes very little of her characters' lives. Instead, she constructs a series of easy-to-follow discussions illustrating problems the Freemans allegedly face. Laid out so schematically, the issues feel imposed from above—displayed in a living room diorama rather than emerging from within the messy reality of life. Most everything feels calculated to teach a lesson rather than to illuminate a truth.
This is true from the play's opening moments. Clunie's first scene presents Angela and Frank Freeman in their McMansion, trying to get their teenage kids, Carol and Dempsey, off to school on time. Hansberry opens Raisin with a similar moment. But beyond the possibility of Carol missing her bus, Clunie's scene sets no discernible stakes for anyone. It merely demonstrates how typically suburban the family is. The kids are overscheduled, mom is overworked, the daughter hasn't got a thing to wear, and no one can find a free bathroom. While in Raisin the unlikelihood of finding a free bathroom in the morning provides telling information about the family's economic situation—the Youngers share theirs with everyone on their tenement floor—here it creates a minor credibility gap. There are never more than two people using bathrooms at once, and the house has two and a half.
Clunie spends almost all of the hour-long first act laying out her plot points in neat sequence. (1) It's 1995 and the Freemans have attained "the dream." (2) They'll downsize to a smaller house to secure full college tuition for both kids. (3) They reminisce about the old days on the west side, when they were desperately poor (although Angela was a graduate student at Northwestern) but committed to the black power movement. (4) They realize their kids are growing up "too white." (5) Frank gets wind of the Million Man March and takes Dempsey to D.C., while Angela invites Mr. Parks, a former neighbor from the west side and current janitor at Carol's school, to teach her daughter a thing or two about ennobling manual labor. (6) Everyone reassembles for the act's final scene—the place where the act could easily start—to consider ways to give back to less advantaged members of the black community. Their options: take in a troubled inner-city foster kid, move to Garfield Park, or both.
This scene finally puts the family in a position to make meaningful choices that bring weighty consequences. In other words, actual drama might result—and given some, this production's winning cast, under Andrea J. Dymond's passionate direction, could do great things. But as it turns out, setting the Freemans on the path toward community engagement reveals little about difficult choices and everything about the playwright's naive, stereotypical thinking.
The Freemans do take in a foster daughter, and within a few minutes her "ghetto" brother Buddy shows up. From everyone's reaction it's clear the audience should see him as Trouble. Yet all he does is talk loudly, use a lot of slang, eat potato chips before they're offered, put his feet up on furniture, mention that his mother uses drugs, and wear baggy jeans. The real trouble with Buddy, apparently, is that he looks like all the Scary Black People middle-class Americans see in rap videos.
It's not until much later in act two that Buddy actually does anything to justify the family's fears, drawing the Freeman kids into a mess of drugs and drive-bys. As distasteful stereotypes of ghetto life pile up, Angela has a crisis of faith and refuses to move her kids to Garfield Park, even though the family's already bought a spacious fixer-upper there. It's in the resulting confrontation between Angela and her family that the play becomes politically ludicrous. Buying a house in Garfield Park and living among Scary Black People isn't just held up as a laudable way for the Freemans to contribute to the betterment of their race—it's likened to Rosa Parks's decision to sit at the front of the bus.
Never do the Freemans contemplate joining a community organization, volunteering as job counselors, contributing to a neighborhood improvement fund, tutoring underprivileged children, or tending to anything beyond their sense of racial authenticity and their net worth. Once they fix up their new house, hang African art on the walls, and lead the way toward gentrification, they'll be ready to elevate the race by pricing all the Scary Black People out of the neighborhood—an outcome Clunie doesn't consider.
Meanwhile, the foster daughter whose life the Freemans might actually improve gets booted to the curb, never to be heard from again.v
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