Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

Last week Bob and I got to see another wonderful play at the Steppenwolf Theater here in Chicago. Our last visit there was to see a memorable piece called Sex with Strangers which I wrote about here.  That play dealt with the power of words (both in print and on the Internet), as well as how they relate to intimacy.

This time we went to see a critically acclaimed and Pulitzer Prize winning play called Clybourne Park written by Bruce Norris and directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Amy Morton.

Similar to last time, my parents, sister and brother-in-law, all of whom have “subscriptions” (like season tickets) to Steppenwolf, told Bob and I how much they enjoyed the production and encouraged us to see it. My parents ended up thoughtfully and generously giving the tickets to Bob as his birthday present and offering to watch our kids so we could enjoy a night out together.

I absolutely loved this play! I thought it was hilarious, but also very moving and insightful. The premise was a look a race relations and the housing market in a Chicago neighborhood over the span of 50 years.

The first act took place in 1959 in a house that an older white couple was preparing to sell to a black family. They were the first on their block and in their community to being willing to do so and many of their neighbors were not pleased. Unfortunately this reaction was common back then, at the beginning of “white flight,” as this phenomenon is referred to. The couple’s friends and neighbors were afraid that a black family moving in would motivate others to move and cause housing prices to go down significantly, not to mention their lack of comfort being around those who were different then them, in this case ethnically.

The second act takes place 2009 in the same house, only now there is an older black couple who live in the neighborhood and representing a community association that is concerned about a white couple who has purchased the property with plans to demolish it and build a new, much bigger home, on the land there. In this act they look at and discuss issues surrounding gentrification and what makes a house or a neighborhood special, important and/or valuable to others.

My parents thought Bob and I would like this play because this is a subject that has interested us for years. Not unlike my parents who chose to move to Evanston (the suburb that borders the north side of the city of Chicago), before my sister and I were born, in part because they were attracted to its ethnic, cultural and racial diversity, Bob and I chose to settle in our Beverly neighborhood here in Chicago in part because we also appreciate living and raising our family in a diverse community.

Back when “white flight” began, the community we live in now worked together to try to keep white families from moving away, but also welcomed black families, and those of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, to buy and settle in our neighborhood. This really impressed me when I first learned about it and it continues to be one of the things that I love about where we live. I am proud to be able to say that our neighbors on our old block and our new one include those of a variety of racial, ethnic and even religious backgrounds (though in our neighborhood there is less religious diversity than some).

Growing up in Evanston I had a lot of acquaintances of various racial and ethic backgrounds, including African Americans/blacks. Though if I am being completely honest, I did not have a lot of black friends. Back then I was always intrigued by what made various people get along and/or want to spend time together and become friends (and I still am curious about that today). I wondered if it truly came down to issues surrounding race and ethnicity or if for some it was more about socioeconomic status.

One summer in college I worked at a residential summer camp in Algonquin, IL and was paired with another female camp counselor for most of our time there. This women happened to be black and we became fast friends. Throughout the summer we had some really great and very candid conversations about our differences and similarities, especially related to our ethnic backgrounds. We also allowed each other to ask questions that typically are considered politically incorrect, inappropriate and/or off base for white people to ask black people and vice versa. We learned a lot from each other and it was a very eye opening experience for both of us.

Anyway, my point in sharing all of this is that I consider myself to be a fairly open minded individual, but I also realize and am honest about the fact that I think we all have some inherent prejudices and it can be very difficult to look beyond certain stereotypes that we have grown to associate with various groups of people, whether they are of a particular race, gender, religion or some other category. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think we should try, though.

This play takes a hard look at the points of view and perspectives of people on all sides of the issues of race, ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic diversity. It also points out that even in 1959, there were factors that influenced what made a person, a couple or a family feel like the were (or were not) part of a community, other than these things.

One of the story-lines in the first act dealt with how the white couple selling their house in the city and moving to the suburbs were bereaved parents. Their son had served in the Korean War, during which (while following orders to “secure the perimeter”) he committed what today would be considered war crimes on innocent people. After returning home, the young man’s neighborhood was not supportive of him and his parents. The couple’s son was depressed and he felt like an outcast, though it was not related to his race or ethnicity, he still did not feel like he was part of their community. Ultimately their son chose to take his own life.

After their son committed suicide the couple felt even less like they belonged in their neighborhood. People were afraid to talk to them about their son’s death and their grief. As a bereaved parent I could appreciate this, even though the circumstances of our daughter’s death was very different and she was a baby and not a grown woman. At one point during the dialogue in the first act, a “concerned” community member who is trying to talk the couple out of selling their house to a black family, talks about how important it is to preserve their neighborhood and community as it was. However, the man who is selling his home tells the other man that he hasn’t felt like he was truly part of their community since his son returned from Korea and died.

This story-line really struck me, as experiencing racism or sexism are not the only things that can make a person feel like an outcast. This play explores the idea of “otherness” in terms of what it means to feel like an “other,” however that might be defined. Sometimes we feel like an “other” because of our background, our education level, our socioeconomic status, our religion or because of a life experience we have had that sets us a part (such as being a bereaved parent, having a child(ren) with special needs, being out of work/underemployed and/or suffering with the diagnosis and prognosis of a life-changing illness). I know that I have felt like an “other” at times throughout my life for various reasons, including being a woman, dealing with secondary infertility and being a bereaved mother.

When we feel like an “other,” it is natural for us to want to surround ourselves with those who understand and appreciate what makes us different from the mainstream/majority. Thinking of “otherness” as not being confined to just categories of race, ethnicity and gender I believe can help those of us that are traditional categorized as being in the majority, to better empathize with, be more sensitive to and have compassion for those who are typically considered to be in the minority.

What does “otherness” mean to you? Do you consider yourself to be an “other” in any way? Why or why not? Does being an “other” help you to be more sensitive to and show compassion for those who are different from you for any reason? 

One really cool thing that Steppenwolf Theater offers after each of its performances is the opportunity for its audiences to stay after the play for a post-show discussion. Bob and I stayed last time we went there and really enjoyed listening to what transpired. So this time we decided to do so again. There was even someone there that night from NPR taping people’s questions and responses for a story they are doing about Clybourne Park.

Some of the topics discussed in the post-show discussion with moderator Bill Savage, a Distinguished Senior Lecturer and expert on Chicago literature from Northwestern University, were about the principles that we believe we have in life and about how they have costs. There was discussion about how this play addressed a lot of tough questions, including what defines a community, what it means to feel part of a community and how every person’s identity is made up of many different aspects.

The post-show discussion also addressed the historical value that we attach to objects, including our homes. Mr. Savage pointed out that the first act takes place in 1959 during the Cold War and the second act takes place 2009 during the Global War on Terror and we looked at how the play deals with bigger issues of American identity.

One audience member posed the question whether or not a character in the play happening to be deaf was meant to be a comedic element and/or a commentary on how we try to listen, but we don’t always really hear each other. Mr. Savage and many others in the audience, including me, thought her question was profound.

Mr. Savage spoke a number of times about how intentional Bruce Norris, the play’s author, was with various plot devices. Though he can be subtle with his writing, in most cases things such as one of the characters being deaf, was likely done on purpose and for more than one reason. Mr. Savage also pointed out how there was a lot of symmetry between the story-lines throughout the play. He talked about how the white couple’s son commits suicide by hanging himself and another couple in the story’s baby died in utero from a chord accident, both instances of strangulation.

For those who are local to the Chicago area, “Clybourne Park” has been extended through this Sunday, November 13. I highly recommend it, if you have the time and resources to get there. Sometimes you can find good deals on Goldstar, such as half priced tickets. At the time I wrote this there were still tickets available here on Goldstar for tonight (Wednesday) and the 7:30 p.m. show on Saturday. Also, from what I understand this play has also been performed other places, so if you ever have the chance to see, I believe it will be worth your time.

I will leave you with a quote from Martha Lavey, Steppenwolf Theater’s Artistic Director, that spoke to me in her introduction to Clybourne Park in the program:

“Human nature is, perhaps forever, a carnival of good intentions and deep, tribal demands.” 

I can appreciate and relate to the idea that so many of us have good intentions when it comes to trying to be a part of, and make others feel comfortable, in our communities, however our “tribal demands” run deep, which makes it difficult for us and others to assimilate with those who we do not have as much in common.

Thank you for reading and for contemplating what “otherness” means in our culture and society with me. I would love to hear your thoughts about all of this and your answers to the questions I posed about “otherness” in the comment section if you want to share.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Esperanza November 9, 2011 at 2:24 pm

That sounds like a really fantastic production. I wish I could see it. And I wish I had the time to speak to all the profound issues it brought up. I can take a moment to speak to your questions about being an "other". I would say that for most of my life I have felt like I belonged. There were times, like when I moved back from Hong Kong and was truly clueless about the social expectations of middle school Americans where I felt very much an "other" but usually, over time, I was able to conform and become a part of the group.

Lately I've felt like somewhat of an "other" and for the first time in my life it's about money, or not having enough of it. Right now all my staff is gearing up for a trip to Las Vegas. 25 of the 30 staff members are going, but I can't afford it. I think I'm the only one who wants to go but can't afford it. I feel so left out and embarrassed when people talk about it and when they ask why I'm not going I say I don't want to leave my daughter.

I also feel this more and more as I watch my friends buy houses and build lives for themselves in the suburbs. We're trying to stay in the city, we're living in the same tiny two bedroom that my friend and I moved into after college. We can't even entertain people at our home and so we always are trekking to other people's houses. It's not a big deal and no one says anything about it but I think about it all the time.

It's funny because in reality we're doing okay. Dresden wrote a post today about food stamps and it made me feel silly for having the feelings I have about where we are financially. It definitely gave me perspective. The reality is I only feel we don't have enough because I compare us to people that I know, who have more. If everyone I knew lived like us I wouldn't think twice about it.

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2 Lavender Luz November 9, 2011 at 10:09 pm

Wonderful review, and a very thought-provoking play. I really like that last quote by Martha Lavey.

Now you've got me thinking about "otherness." I think that feeling of separation is probably at the root of much fear.

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3 Deborah November 10, 2011 at 8:52 am

Sounds like a really interesting play. Thanks for telling us about it. Since my husband & I are an interracial couple, we tried to buy a house in an area with some racial diversity. Overall, I think we did a great job and have been welcomed. I love the diversity at J's old daycare and his preschool. However, two neighbors were upset with a black person moving in: neither has a real job, both have unsavory friends hanging around, one has an alcohol problem and is about to go to jail. But they thought we'd ruin the neighborhood. Every time I see the one guy whose license is suspended for drunk driving drive by my house, I wonder "who's ruining this neighborhood, exactly?" Luckily, we have many other neighbors who have welcomed us, and even those two have more or less come around. But I still sometimes feel extra pressure to keep our yard neat and be presentable (something we're not great at).

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4 loribeth November 13, 2011 at 4:05 pm

I love live theatre & I have certainly heard of Steppenwolf — this sounds like a great production. Certainly, as a family of two living in suburbia, I often feel that sense of "otherness" that you mention. But I think we all have those feelings now & then for whatever reasons. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

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5 Justine January 26, 2013 at 9:44 pm

Wow … so much to think about here!

I’d be curious to know how your community managed to keep white families from moving out during the “white flight,” and how it actively managed to encourage diversity. That’s a HUGE accomplishment! I wish our area were more diverse … we live in what is probably the most diverse part of Hunterdon County, and it’s still pretty white … though there is a significant Latino population, and that has made some people upset because it affects everything from schools and test scores to local businesses. I wish it were even MORE diverse, though … because that’s what I loved about where I went to college. We try to teach our children about cultural difference, but that’s easier to do when you have a racially and ethnically diverse community.

I love the fact that you and your fellow camp counselor allowed each other to ask questions that would typically be taboo … I think we need to be able to do that in order to get past some of the assumptions we make about each other. But that takes a lot of trust, and trust is not easily established.

I’ve felt “other” for many reasons at some point in my life: the way I dressed, the fact that I went to school in a town where my parents taught (not where I lived), my weight, being “into” school, being the only non-drinker in a drinking crowd, etc. etc. I think there are so many factors to otherness … and you’re right, we probably tend to be more reductive that we need to be.

So glad you directed me back to this post, too!
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