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Clybourne Park - Act One Summary

Study Guide for Bruce Norris' Play

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The play Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris is set in "a modest three-bedroom bungalow" in central Chicago. Clybourne Park is a fictional neighborhood, first mentioned in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. In that drama, a fictional account of an African American family's decision to move into a new neighborhood: Clybourne Park, an all-white suburb of Chicago.

At the end of A Raisin in the Sun, a white man named Mr. Lindner tried to convince the black man not to move into Clybourne Park He even offers them a substantial sum to purchase back the new home so that the white, working class community can maintain its status quo. It isn't mandatory to know the story of A Raisin in the Sun to appreciate Clybourne Park, but it certainly enhances the experience. You can read a detailed, scene by scene summary of A Raisin in the Sun in our study guide section.

Act One - Plot Summary:

Act One of Clybourne Park takes place in 1959, in the home of Bev and Russ, a middle aged couple who are preparing to move to a new neighborhood. They bicker (sometimes playfully, sometimes with underlying hostility) about various national capitals and origin of Neapolitan ice cream. Tensions mount when Jim, the local minister, stops by for a chat. Jim hopes for a chance to discuss Russ' feelings. We learn that their adult son committed suicide after returning from the Korean War.

Other people arrive, including Albert (husband of Francine, Bev's maid) and Karl and Betsy Lindner. Albert arrives to take his wife home, but the couple becomes involved in the conversation and the packing process, despite Francine's attempts to just leave. Meanwhile, Karl drops the bombshell: The family that plans to move in to Bev and Russ' home is "colored."

Karl Doesn't Want Change:

Karl tries to convince the others that the arrival of a black family will negatively affect the neighborhood. He claims that housing prices will go down, neighbors will move away, and non-white, lower income families will move in. He even tries to obtain the approval and understanding of Albert and Francine, asking them if they would want to live in a neighborhood like Clybourne Park. (They decline to comment, and do their best to stay out of the conversation.) Bev, on the other hand, believes that the new family could be wonderful people, no matter the color of their skin.

Karl is the most overtly racist character in the play. He makes several outrageous, and yet in his mind he is presenting logic. For example, while trying to illustrate a point about racial preferences, he recounts his observations on a ski vacation:

KARL: I can tell you, in all the time I've been there, I have not once seen a colored family on those slopes. Now, what accounts for that? Certainly not any deficit in ability, so what I have to conclude is that for some reason, there is just something about the pastime of skiing that doesn't appeal to the Negro community. And feel free to prove me wrong… But you'll have to show me where to find the skiing Negroes.

Despite such small-minded sentiments, Karl believes himself to be progressive. After all, he supports the Jewish-owned grocery store in the neighborhood. Not to mention, his wife, Betsy, is deaf - and yet despite her differences, and despite the opinions of others he married her. Unfortunately, his core motivation is economic. He believes that when non-white families move into an all-white neighborhood, the financial value decreases, and investments are ruined.

Russ Gets Mad:

As Act One continues, tempers boil. Russ doesn't care who is moving into the house. He is extremely disappointed and angry at his community. After being discharged because of disgraceful conduct (it is implied that he killed civilians during the Korean War), Russ' son could not find work. The neighborhood shunned him. Russ and Bev received no sympathy or compassion from the community. They felt abandoned by their neighbors. And so, Russ turns his back on Karl and the others.

After Russ' caustic monologue in which he claims "I don't care if a hundred Ubangi tribesman with a bone through the nose overrun this goddamn place" (Norris 92), Jim the minister responds by saying "Maybe we should bow our heads for a second" (Norris 92). Russ snaps and wants to punch Jim in the face. To calm things down, Albert places his hand on Russ' shoulder. Russ "whirls" toward Albert and says: "Putting your hands on me? No sir. Not in my house you don't" (Norris 93). Before this moment, Russ seemed apathetic about the issue of race. In the scene mentioned above, however, it seems Russ reveals his prejudice. Is he so upset because someone is touching his shoulder? Or is he outraged that a black man has dared to put hands on Russ, a white man?

Bev is Sad:

Act One ends after everyone (except Bev and Russ) leaves the house, all with various feelings of disappointment. Bev tries to give away a chafing dish to Albert and Francine, but Albert firmly yet politely explains, "Ma'am, we don't want your things. Please. We got our own things." Once Bev and Russ are alone, their conversation feebly returns to small talk. Now that her son is dead and she will be leaving behind her old neighborhood, Bev wonders what she will do with all of the empty time. Russ suggests that she fill the time up with projects. The lights go down, and Act One reaches its somber conclusion.

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