Theatre Review: Opening Night
“This could be a play that if you are too guarded you can get turned off, especially by the jokes in the second act, but if your open and your ready, you’ll go with it and you’ll sit and look at your neighbor and go, ‘are you laughing at that, cause this is so wrong.’ but it’s okay, right!” – Tyla Abercrumbie – Actress
“Art is supposed to be provocative and we want to carry the mantle of that here in Sarasota, we feel that is what makes us different from other theaters, it’s what sets us apart.” – Susan Yannetti; Public Relations Manager Asolo Rep
Tony Award winning and Pulitzer Prize winning Clybourne Park written by playwright Bruce Norris, debuted Friday evening March 15th at Asolo Repertory Theatre. A razor-sharp comedy based on the same inhabitants that are the center of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic drama, A Raisin in the Sun. Whether you’ve seen Hansberry’s drama or not, won’t matter. The topic deals with racism back in 1959 with a white family selling their home to a black family causing an upheaval in the all white neighborhood. Fast forward to 2009 in act two, the same set of actors playing different parts; spin the topic around now a black family must decide if the white couple wanting to purchase their home and demolish it, with the intent to build a larger home in the all black neighborhood, is worthwhile.
The topic of racism is always a bit uncomfortable, yet it’s a reality that even today is still prevalent as you will find out when you read my interview with Chicago actress Tyla Abercrumbie cast as Francine, hired as domestic help for an all white family and Lena in act two as the wife who is having issues with demolishing their home.
The play starts off slow, but gains your attention towards the end of act one with a powerful performance by Douglas Jones who plays Russ, a husband and father who has lost his son and his will to move forward. Act two will certainly capture your attention with the fast paced camaraderie. However, what would be considered highly offensive jokes in any other atmosphere will have you gasping out loud and a bit uncomfortable. According to the actors I spoke to, the reactions of the Sarasota audience was right there with them on every single beat without missing even one.
Since its opening night, a post champagne reception with gourmet bites themed with neighborhoods in the Sarasota area follow the play. Fresh off the stage, I spot Annabel Amrour and David Breitbarth and ask a few quick questions.
Actress Annabel Armour – Cast as Bev / Kathy
It’s Opening Night, how did you feel about your performance?
The whole evening was extraordinary. This audience was astonishing; you were in every ounce of it and rode the play with us, which as performers that’s the best you look for and, you have incredible material, incredible people to work with and Michael directing, this is a love labor.
The comradely was in incredible; did it take a while for you all to mesh and get the rhythm down?
It took right away in terms of all of us reading and working with each other, but because it’s a rap and rehearsal times are skewed, we would be together for five hours, go away for two days and repeat that process. Getting that rhythm in our bones was a huge challenge for us, but we all did mesh well.
Actor David Breitbarth – Cast as Karl / Steve
How did you feel about playing this controversial part?
Fine! I don’t take anything home with me from my work. I know that I have a job to do, to tell the story of any play that I am in on any given day, it’s my job and it’s a brilliant piece of writing, very evocative and provocative.
Did you feel the audience got the message?
I don’t know. You’ll have to ask the audience.
Based on the audience reactions?
Yes, they did get the play, but I don’t know how they got it. You’ll have to ask them specifically.
Later in the evening I talk with Tyla Abercrumbie who is not only statuesque, but very friendly and willing to go into a deeper conversation.
Actress Tyla Abercrumbie – Cast as Francine / Lena
Upon accepting the role, what were your thoughts?
It was two-part because the play is like two one acts. I knew I would have to step into the role of someone I would respect, because a domestic is an honorable position and many people did it and definitely many American Blacks did it so that was something that I wanted to breathe an honest life into. Having seen the play before in Chicago, when it came to act two I felt there were things that I missed, that I felt could have been said – the topic could have been more clear, so being inside the world, I wanted to make sure my character made a point that it didn’t matter if you were Hispanic, white or whatever. I wanted us as the property owners to benefit by having this historical property and community, verses if you buy anything else and it’s unfortunate that the thin line is walked, where “Are you talking about us as people who have the same economic status, social status or are you talking about race?, “ it’s a thin line and sometimes it’s blurred and I felt my character was talking about that line where, “No were talking about, we are all the same here, and we can maintain this community, if we try.”
Has this role changed your outlook on how you view life now?
No, it hasn’t changed my life. I do notice since I’ve been in Sarasota and I am staying over by University Park and Tuttle, it’s not unusual where I walk into an environment and everyone stops and turns around and I’m like – “Right I’m here” and I decided they turn around because, I’m just fabulous! But, it has also made me aware of when things I’m protecting on my own, being the only black person in the community. No one is mean, no one has done anything , but then there is the experiences I have had or heard about that you carry with you as baggage and you project them into that environment even if there not there. So being in Sarasota has made me acutely aware of that, of when I’m doing that and nothing has really caused it, except that I’m the only black person in that situation.
Is this your first time performing at the Asolo Rep?
Yes, it is my first time performing at the Asolo. Michael the director came into Chicago and did auditions. Really he didn’t audition me, he talked to me; which he did for most actors – had a conversation with you and he decided from that. He called me back and let me know and tried to make me comfortable with Sarasota because I’ve never been here. I don’t even know why he did that, I’ve had a ball since I’ve been here, I don’t want to leave and I want to come back. I appreciate him thinking I would have a problem with the sun, but I don’t.
Is there anything particular that stood out to you in regard to audience reaction?
I love that the audience was willing to go on the ride with us, they didn’t miss a moment. They laughed when it was time to laugh, you can feel them sad when we talked about the death of his son, they went with the ride and it felt really good. This could be a play that if you are too guarded you can get turned off, especially by the jokes in the second act, but if your open and your ready, you’ll go with it and you’ll sit and look at your neighbor and go, ‘are you laughing at that, cause this is so wrong.’ but it’s okay, right!
While everyone laughing, eating and sipping champagne, I look for a few theater goers to ask about their evening. I spot Jean and Joseph Hurd, a black couple who just moved to Lakewood Ranch and are happy to share their experience with me.
Jean and Joseph Hurd
Do you come to the Asolo often?
Joe: This is our first time, but we will be back.
Why the first time at Asolo?
Joe: We are snow birds of a recent vintage. We just started coming to Sarasota for the winters, but we love it and bought a house out in Lakewood Ranch, so we’ll be here a lot.
Why did you choose to come to this particular play?
Jean: Clybourne Park an adaptation of ‘Raisin in the Sun’ and we wanted to see what the social specific issues are now and how they presented in to regards to what they had in the 1950’s.
What did you think of the show?
Jean: Excellent, Well done. Well portrayed. What had happened which we did know very well, we have experienced many of the things and how they portrayed 2009 was wonderful.
Joe: We were sitting next to an ex-mayor of a large city and he said it was very well done. The issues were current.
Jean: To see the diversity here in the audience is fabulous and treating everyone with the same respect that they should.
I spot a lovely woman standing by herself at the moment, Sharon Frankel and take the opportunity to get her reaction to the evening.
What did you think of the play and did any part of the play stand out?
Wonderful acting, fantastic! Loved the time frame change and how it was the same actors but a totally different look and appearance. I thought the actors were fantastic.
The Asolo Rep is very lucky to have Susan Yannetti, Public Relations Manager for the theatre. Not only is she educated and knowledgeable about all things happening at the Asolo, she is kind, sweet, accessible to the media and very attentive to the guests, qualities that set a precedent. She took some time to give some insight into what to expect this upcoming season.
What can people expect from the Asolo Rep this season?
We talk about the play and how it came about. This play; Clybourne Park talks to A Raisin in the Sun, which a lot of people remember reading, some won’t remember, but it’s a refresher to put it into context so people understand what they are watching.
We have post show discussions on Tuesdays called Tuesday Talk Backs. We have a Meet the Actors panel and an Inside Asolo Rep where the director and cast members come out and speak to the audience about what it is they have seen and how to put it into context and how to start having these discussions themselves, not just in the theater, but having them in the community as a way of pushing the envelope and needle forward in doing our part to affect social change.
We feel our mission as a theatre is to be incumbent upon us to be agents of social change. It’s not just enough for us to present entertainment that people come in and possibly watch and go away feeling happy or satisfied or warm and fuzzy. We want to challenge their notions of what makes them comfortable and bring out this reaction to the art. Because art is supposed to be provocative and we want to carry the mantle of that here in Sarasota, we feel that is what makes us different from other theatres, that is what sets us a part, it’s not just the quality of the work; which is very high we have incredible actors, amazing designers, the sets – the costumes, everything is top draw, then added on top of that is public programming, all the things that we do to try to engage the community in a conversation.
Our American Character project, which is a five season initiative we have, to explore the idea of what it means to be an American today through works in theater. Looking at the way people perceive character, what is American? 1776 was our kick off musical this year and that was the first show of the American Character project. That was really the birth place of this nation where we first thought about what does it mean to be an American? Here we are signing this declaration of independence, were calling ourselves a country we are a new country, we deserve a new nationality. From there forward, what does that mean? Here we are today with a play that talks about the evolution of our social issues and how we view each other, the idea of property, boundaries, what can one group own, what can another group tell them to do – this is really a way to have a place to talk to each other about what’s going on.
Overall it was a fabulous evening attended by diverse theatre goers– not only in the sense of race, but age. Out of all the theatres I’ve been to, it seems The Asolo Rep Theatre attracts a young vibrant group of people.
Clybourne Park has scheduled performances throughout March, April and closing night is May 2nd. If you would like to interact with the performers and creative team you can attend one of the educational programs; April 21st; Meet the Actors during a moderated talk after the 2pm matinée or attend Tuesday Talkbacks on April 9th or April 30th following the 7:30pm performance. Ticket prices for all performances range between $20.-$72. Purchase online at www.asolorep.org or call the box office at (941) 351-8000.
Douglas Jones – Russ/Dan
Annabel Armour – Bev/Kathy
Tyla Abercrumbie – Francine/Lena
Jesse Dorman – Jim/Tom
Christopher Wynn – Albert/Kevin
David Breitbarth – Karl/Steve
Sarah Brown – Betsy/Lindsey
Jacob Cooper – Kenneth