Daniel Gary Busby with CLYBOURNE PARK director Leslie Ishii


Daniel Gary Busby: First of all, what drew you to this material?

Leslie Ishii: Well…you asked!! No, seriously, Clybourne Park is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. I was drawn to this work because it is at UC Irvine with this exceptional faculty and student body in the Claire Trevor School of the Arts.

Since I don’t shy away from a challenge and this play is rarely directed by a person of color, I thought, “Let’s dive in and see what can happen!?!” After all, if Bruce Norris had the audacity to write a sequel to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and the Drama Department had the audacity to ask this woman of color to direct this play, I thought “Why not?”

The chance to direct this play is an opportunity to honor my parents, the vision they had for our family, and the neighbors who became our most cherished extended family.

Clybourne Park is a very personal journey for me. Much like Lorraine Hansberry’s family and the Younger family of A Raisin In The Sun, my parents crossed the color line to move into the home and neighborhood where I was eventually born and spent my entire childhood. I was drawn to directing this story because there are elements in both of these plays that chronicle my own life and neighborhood. I find myself wondering if, like in Clybourne Park, the sellers were pressured by other neighbors not to sell to my parents?

“No Japs Allowed” was spray painted in front of our new house just before my parents moved in. They experienced “white flight,” where the white neighbors who could not accept these changes moved away for fear that people of color would bring declining property values to the area.

A next-door neighbor told my dad, “I’ve got no problem with you Orientals.” Less than a year later, they moved away.

My parents were a catalyst for change, breaking the color line. Most of the white families moved away and those who remained raised their children alongside the families of color. Our parents have been friends now for 60 years. My generation still returns to visit with each other and calls our neighborhood “home” even though most of us live in other parts of the country.

There are multiple levels on which to deeply contemplate Clybourne Park. First, I feel as though we can’t think about Bruce Norris’ play without first thinking about Lorraine Hansberry’s family, who like so many black families, underwent horrendous racism when her family crossed the color line to move into their new home in Washington Park. This was a white middle-class Chicago neighborhood in the 1930s. Her award winning play A Raisin In The Sun, also set in 1959, was inspired by the supreme court case Hansberry’s family eventually won to remain owners of their home as well as the poem by Langston Hughes, Harlem or A Dream Deferred:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sages
Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

I hear many people talk about how they don’t think they will ever afford a house. The American dream is to have a family and a house with a picket fence. I believe Lorraine Hansberry was writing about this dream for her community. My intention is to inspire our audiences to ask the question: Who is fighting to get the opportunity and right to enjoy comfort and privilege, and who is fighting to keep their comfort and privilege?

DGB: Each actor plays a double role, embodying a different character in 1959 & 2009. What do you feel is the significance of this?

LI: Another layer of Clybourne Park is that we, as an American population, have been talking about race and class for over 200 years. Although more deeply nuanced with greater understanding regarding historical impact, many of these conversations include cyclical arguments. Portraying characters of these two different periods will support an examination of how far we, as a people, have come. I suspect the actors will come face-to-face with the same issues that challenge their characters. This is how theatre and training informs the artists of our next generation.

DGB: This is foremost a story about suburban segregation/integration and “gentrification;” do you feel these topics are still at the forefront of our cultural discussion? How have they evolved between the two decades explored in the play?

LI: I’m not so sure we’ve evolved. I think that gentrification is the same but has a shinier outer package that continues to be driven by the need to serve business interests first. That said, it is a complicated time as our communities have aged and we need to figure out how to accommodate the basic needs of our growing populations. But, the basic questions still remain: How can more people benefit, and equally important, who are the people that we never hear about whose existence is compromised throughout the gentrification process?

In Clybourne Park, the conversations swirl around the consequences of gentrification and the need to address the issues of creating a model that meets the satisfaction of all parties involved.

This all takes me back to the word gentrification. It is derived from the word “gentry,” which means upper class, describing the renewal and rebuilding process that accompanies the influx of affluent people into deteriorating areas displacing underprivileged residents. I would be remiss if I didn’t review our history and the way gentrification functions. It replicates aspects of the colonialism that is in the DNA of our country. Our history, our identities and class locations are all deeply intertwined with the cultural memory of our country, which was originally inhabited by Native Americans, our indigenous peoples. Then it was colonized which, lest we forget, included the genocide of indigenous peoples. Gentrification justifies aspects of continued colonialism, the taking over of or the wiping away of an underprivileged community and therefore, their cultural history—most often wiping away the history of people of color who are displaced due to the revitalization of a district or area. This is the creation of historical and cultural amnesia. We don’t remember what isn’t there and what has been systematically wiped away.

As an example, I look around downtown Los Angeles, and hardly remember what it looked like when I first arrived in 1992. As recently as fifteen years ago, I vividly recall signing petitions on behalf of the hundreds of people, mostly the working poor of color, displaced because developers were “revitalizing” and “developing” the entire district that now includes the Staples Center. Frequently, I drive past this district and I notice this “revitalized” district is still under construction. The master plan is not yet complete. It makes me wonder how many more people have been displaced. There are also community arguments that creating arts districts are the alibi for developers to gentrify an area. These topics of segregation/integration and gentrification are still at the forefront and as potent as ever.

In Clybourne Park, the property illuminates how historical and cultural amnesia is about to occur unless current residents are able to preserve this home that is a part of the African American history in Chicago.

I know from my own experience, neighborhoods and homes hold unique character and histories. When people are displaced and properties are developed due to gentrification in the name of progress, the former residents lose their sense of home, identity, and the history of community they created together. My mother and her closest friend fought against the gentrification of our neighborhood. It is not lost on me how rare it is to grow up in a neighborhood of color where no one was displaced. As my mother fought to keep our neighborhood intact, I wondered if this was her reaction to being forcibly removed to relocation camps during WWII.

DGB: Do you see the house as an independent character?

LI: One notable line in the play is, “The history of America is the history of private property.” I believe that Clybourne Park begs the question: Who gets to own a home?

For the privileged and underprivileged, owning a home or not owning a home is a significant part of our lived experiences, and these experiences create our American history. For this, yes, I believe the house is an independent character in the play. I am excited to work with the actors to learn about their personal housing history and their relationship to the house in Clybourne Park.

I’ve worked with this talented design team to very specifically create this house. It has a story and character arch just as the human characters do. It is the oldest character in the play because it pre-dates the human characters. It is the central figure that sparks the dramatic conflict of the play.

It is interesting that in ACT II, Tom, Lena, and Kevin have applied for the home to be listed on the Chicago Landmark Preservation list. This could mean that Steve and Lindsay can only change their new home according to strict regulations, when they would actually like to level it and rebuild altogether. Whether the house is preserved or rebuilt, either way, this raises the question: How do we keep history alive so that we don’t commit historical and cultural amnesia and replicate the societal patterns of gentrification around housing and development that would perpetuate racial and class inequities?

DGB: The play opens and closes with references to a suicide. How do you feel this topic “bookends” the rest of the play?

LI: The presence of suicide in Act I and II has led me to think about the human cost of protecting the privilege many of us enjoy in America.

It has also led me to even more questions: How will those of us who enjoy privilege utilize it for good more effectively? Perhaps we can start by developing the capacity to listen to those who are suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder, with mental and physical conditions that are outside the norms that most of us are comfortable with?

When I first saw Clybourne Park, it baffled me. Now I think it was because Bruce Norris crowded and stretched my bandwidth with his characters challenging each other, sometimes all at once, from very different vantage points. I thought he was confused about what issue was most important. The arguments were cyclical and didn’t seem to solve anything. I wanted to prioritize the issues and of course, make the ones that I am effected by most, more important. I have since come to realize our legacy of structural oppression would have us want to deal with just one problem or one narrative at a time for only as long as we feel comfortable.

However, every character’s point of view that is represented in this play and in our society has an important set of issues and truthful narratives that needs to be heard now. Instead of always creating a hierarchy of importance, how do we open up our cultural and organizational structures where we all co-exist and develop the capacity and eco-system to support the creation of equity, justice and peace so all can thrive?

Bruce Norris challenges us to examine how our human experiences and the consequences of our choices are connected. So, producing this play now, in 2015, means seriously looking at the fact that our sustainability is dependent upon how well we address the issues of equity, diversity and inclusion.

DGB: The series of “jokes” in the second act contains material to offend just about every demographic. Do you think ‘shock value’ can be an effective teaching tool?

LI: In the case of Clybourne Park, I have been conflicted about the shock value and the use of humor in this show. It’s something the actors and I will work with and I trust our creative process will reveal the strongest choices.

However, I am clear that talking about any of these issues is messy. This play offers us, with privilege, the opportunity to be uncomfortable to build strength and stamina to really listen to those who have lived experience around inequities.

Humor is one of the most effective tools we have in live theatre, especially when the playwright and production utilize it with clear intention in service of the play. I love it when audiences laugh and react at different times. In these moments we learn from each other what resonates, what opens us up and what is meaningful. Live theatre allows us to witness the art as a diverse community and to share responses and reactions to what is happening in the play in real time.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, author of the play Appropriate, talks about how theatre is not meant to be an experience of consensus. Clybourne Park is challenging us to allow more than one point of view to co-exist so that we might, for the first time, begin to really see and understand who we are as Americans.

DGB: What do you make of Norris’ choice to write a Deaf character into the play?

LI: I feel that there are a number of reasons

First, though not maliciously intended, it is easy for the hearing population to forget and keep this minority community invisible. I feel it is important to include the Deaf Community in our cultural landscape.

Second, it is interesting and important to this story that we witness hearing characters, who are in the dominant culture, needing to work to communicate with Betsy, the deaf mother-to-be who represents this minority culture. It is powerful that we witness how this deaf woman is treated in 1959. I don’t think it is much different than in 2009. There is no Deaf character present in ACT II, but Bruce Norris finds a way to bring the legacy of the deaf community into the room.

While Betsy’s husband, Karl, comes off as racially prejudiced, he is also an ally to his wife, having learned sign language. This makes him a complicated and multi-dimensional character as people actually are.

Third, the inclusion of this Deaf character also reminds us that the issues are not just “black and white.” There are other intersections around identity and other voices to be included to authentically represent the complexities of our society.

I learned recently that it is the 25th Anniversary of the American Disabilities Act. This makes the show timely and fuels me to learn as much as I can on behalf of the Deaf and mentally challenged communities as we stage Clybourne Park.

DGB: Which character (if any) do you feel undergoes the most significant transformation over the course of the narrative?

LI: This is a tough question. Every character reveals that they are undergoing a transformation. Because characters experience extensive conversations that occur in each act, I believe they are forced to think about themselves and their neighbors that are leaving, moving in, and changing the neighborhood.

If I have to choose one, I would say, Kenneth. As we learn about him throughout the play, we realize the arch of his story is dramatically altered due to the events of his life. Even though other characters remind us of the moral compass we want to be conscious of, I believe Kenneth is the moral compass of this story.

DGB: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

LI: I hope that our audiences will have a unique experience because the lens through which this production was created is that of a team who are largely from marginalized identities. We will be holding space for you, our audiences, to journey through the specificity and nuances of this story that is influenced by our personal connections to the circumstances of this play.

I hope you stay for a post-show discussion. We’d love to know what you discover! I’d also love for you to enjoy hearing what the cast and crew discovered during this incredible journey that is our Clybourne Park.


Clybourne Park at the Robert Cohen Theatre, 30 January – 7 February 2016. For tickets, call (949) 824-2787 or visit www.arts.uci.edu/tickets

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