By Christopher Reilly
Culturally, St. Louis is a boom town. New dynamic restaurants open every week, and more theaters, art galleries and performance groups dot the cultural landscape than ever before. There’s entertainment gold here, and you don’t have to dig very deep to find it. I went digging last Friday night, first to Milagro Modern Mexican and then to the Rep for opening night of “Clybourne Park.” Entertainment-wise, I hit the motherlode.
Milagro was bustling more than usual, but within a few minutes I squeezed into a stool at the bar and ordered a Schlafly pumpkin ale. Its strong pumpkin-pie aroma and spicy taste nudged me into a Halloween/holiday mood, but then, so did the bartender’s hair. Gelled strait up on the sides, Zach told those of us at the bar who were grilling him about it, “I love Halloween, so I’m starting early. You don’t think I’d normally wear my hair like this?” Well, who can tell how someone might wear his hair these days. Later, I saw that Adam Tilford, co-owner of Milagro with his brother Jason, had tweeted: “Zack looks like Wolverine.” And so he did. I told Zack I wouldn’t write about his hair. My bad.
For dinner, I ordered three street tacos off the happy hour menu—hand-pressed corn tortillas filled with pulled pork, served with lime wedges to squeeze over the tender meat to add some zip. To call them mini tacos gives the wrong impression, as they’re not that small, but three bites each and you’re done. Fast, economical and delicious—perfect when you’ve got a show to catch. Soon it was time to go, so I headed out with five easy minutes to the theater.
There is always a certain excitement on the opening night of a show, but for “Clybourne Park,” Bruce Norris’ shark-toothed satire of modern race relations, the giddy anticipation hung palpably in the air—and why not? Clybourne Park won the Olivier award (London’s version of the Tonys), the Pulitzer Prize, and the Tony Award for best play, and it was to be performed in the intimate confines of the Emerson Studio Theatre.
The play begins in 1959 with a hyper Ozzie and Harriet scene and style of acting, meant to represent the self-consciously artificial world portrayed on television of the period, when the newest Hotpoint dishwasher commercial promised to “take all the drudgery out of kitchen work.” It was a facade, of course, even back then—a mere eggshell just beginning to show cracks. There’s an underlying tension from the very first moments, and the audience knows this world will shatter like grandma’s Wedgwood swept off a shelf. And the force that shatters it is racism.
The second act, more humorous but brutal, jettisons us 50 years ahead to the same house in 2009 with the same actors returning in different roles, one of the many joys of this production. As a friendly argument regarding the capitol of Morocco (Spoiler alert: The answer is Rabat.) disintegrates into a heated discussion of racism, we are reminded that though we have come a long way, there is yet a long troublesome road ahead when it comes to interracial harmony. If you’re thinking the play is an emotional and spiritual downer, don’t worry, the play’s humor rules the day. It’s laugh-out-loud funny; big, booming laughter that erupts from the center of your diaphragm. But, it’s also as sharp as a knife. The tension crackles, and even as you squirm in your seat, you’ll be entranced. “Clybourne Park” is fiercely intelligent.
The acting is superb across the board. Mark Anderson Phillips, Nancy Bell, Tanesha Gary, Eric Glide, Chauncy Thomas, Michael James Reed and Shanara Gabriel (profiled in ALIVE’s September issue as a St. Louis artist to watch) each give a master’s class in acting here. Playwright Norris gives them strong characters to work with, but each actor has completely inhabited their characters. Watch them. They are all listening onstage, and that’s the holy grail of acting. Likewise, kudos are due to director Timothy Near, as well as to the show’s technical designers and staff. The run has already been extended for an extra week due to heavy demand, so get your tickets soon. “Clybourne Park” is, quite simply, not to be missed. And Milagro is always a treat. Catch them both on the same night for a great night out.