WILKES-BARRE — Lena wants to tell a joke and her husband, Kevin, must suspect what’s coming, and how angry the two white women in the room are likely to be when they hear it, so he murmurs a cautionary, “Baby, don’t.”
“Don’t ‘baby’ me,” Lena snaps. “You’ve got three babies at home.”
So Lena, who is black, tells a crude joke, striking back after her would-be neighbor Steve, who is white, tells a cringe-worthy story about two men in a jail cell.
Before this especially tense part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Clybourne Park” is over, the characters onstage at Wilkes University’s Dorothy Dickson Darte Center will have managed to insult many groups, from gay people to assault victims to, of course, each other.
“They started out being nice,” director Jon Liebetrau said of the characters, whose nerves are frayed in 2009, when a yuppie white couple wants to move into a black neighborhood, tear down an old house and build another in its place.
That’s the premise in Act II of the play, which Wilkes University’s Theater Department will present Sept. 27 through Sept. 30.
The situation had been reversed, half a century earlier, in Act I. It was 1959 and Chicago’s Clybourne Park was a white neighborhood. Back then a white couple, grieving the loss of their son, were about to sell the same house to a black couple, not caring that their neighbors would see the sale as a kind of betrayal.
Russ and Bev don’t really care about pleasing their soon-to-be-former neighbors, said cast member Melissa Berardelli, of Dunmore, noting the neighbors ostracized the family after hearing rumors their son had killed civilians during the Korean Conflict.
“The play centers on class separation,” Liebetrau said, adding the divisions include race, gender, economics and whether a person is “able” or “disabled.”
“We’re hoping that it starts conversations, that people go home and talk about it,” cast member Josh Shepard, of Milford, said during a rehearsal break. “Everyone in the audience will find someone (in the show) they can identify with and say ‘that person’s the same as I am …’ “
” …’or someone I know,’ ” added cast member Alex Booth, of New Hampton, N.Y. “We want them to see other people’s point of view.”
Written by Bruce Norris, the play serves as both a prequel and sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” which tells the story of an African-American family getting ready to purchase their first home.
In “Clybourne Park,” Liebetrau said, the house is “a character in its own right.”
“In the second act it’s not so well-kempt,” the director said. “Windows are boarded up. There’s graffiti.”
“I get a feeling it hasn’t been lived in for a while,” Berardelli said.
Nevertheless the house has historic and emotional value for the black couple who protest the yuppie couple’s intention to demolish it and gentrify the neighborhood.
When a reporter asked the university-age thespians if any of them had done research for their roles by asking older family members what they remembered about a more segregated society, Shepard relayed a story that went back much further than 1959.
His great-uncle, now 96, told him about living in the deep South and fearing he was in danger from the Ku Klux Klan. When he was about 21, the great-uncle told his nephew, a friend of his was falsely accused of assaulting a white woman.
The friend hid under the basement of the great-uncle’s family for three days.
“Because of the association,” Shepard said, his great-uncle knew he could be killed, too, so he moved north, to New York.
The North of 75 years ago was a safer place for a young black man because the KKK wasn’t as active here as in the South but still, Shepard said, “he felt like an outsider. He felt like he was always going to be second-rate. “
“I’m grateful to him for telling me about that,” Shepard said after a pause. “I feel it’s my duty to tell that story to the next generation.”
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT