Both Sides Now: Bruce Norris Takes a Page From the Past for Clybourne Park

By Robert Simonson
April 19, 2012

With an "adolescent need to piss people off," Bruce Norris may have reached his zenith with the success of the Pulitzer-winning Clybourne Park, now on Broadway.



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Playwright Lorraine Hansberry never won the Pulitzer Prize for her signature work, A Raisin in the Sun. But playwright Bruce Norris sort of won her the award by proxy.

In 2011 Norris collected the prize for his drama Clybourne Park, which borrows from Raisin a character and an uncomfortable social situation. The character — the most risible of those in the Hansberry drama, and the only white one — is Karl Lindner, a weasely figure who visits the African-American Younger household to convince them not to go through with their plans to move to the all-white neighborhood that he represents — Clybourne Park. In Norris' play, set in the house the Youngers have bought, we see how the white couple who sold it to them are petitioned by their neighbors to renege on the deal. The second act, set in 2009, upends the scenario. Clybourne Park is now all-black, and a white couple's plan to buy the same home raises the specter of gentrification and the social upheaval it frequently engenders.

Growing up in Texas, Norris may have been the only budding actor in America ever to dream of playing Karl Lindner. "It was because he was the white guy in the play," says Norris, who had a respectable name as a stage actor before making an even bigger splash as a writer. "And of course I'm living in an all-white neighborhood. Even at that age, I had minimal aspirations to being an actor. So I thought, 'Well, I could play that part.' I had the weird response of knowing the only person I could play was the antagonist."

Crystal A. Dickinson and Damon Gupton in Clybourne Park.
photo by Joan Marcus

Many years later, Norris began putting down the first words of what became Clybourne Park. Unlike many of his other scripts, which had been commissioned by Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, he pursued the play for his own pleasure. When it was complete, he mailed it off to both New York's Playwrights Horizons and Washington, DC's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Both troupes elected to do it, almost simultaneously. It premiered at Playwrights Horizons in February 2010. (That production, directed by Pam MacKinnon, has been reconstituted and is now at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre.)

And then Norris began to experience something unusual — success. His earlier plays had enjoyed respectable reviews and respectable runs. But this was something different.

"When we did the play first at Playwrights, I was surprised it did well," says Norris. "When it did well at the Royal Court in London, I was dumbstruck. When it moved to the West End and it did well there, I thought, 'This is just preposterous.' Then the Pulitzer thing happened. Now I just throw up my hands."

Norris' reputation — as a writer and as a person — is as a bluntly spoken contrarian. Despite his background as a performer, being liked is not something he looks for or expects. "It actually feels strange, very strange to me," he says. "I've always judged the worth of the work I do based on how many people hate it. When people approve of something I do, it's deeply confusing for me. I have that adolescent need to piss people off."

Read about the original 1959 Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun in the Playbill Vault

Christina Kirk and Frank Wood in Clybourne Park.
Photo by Joan Marcus
Norris was once a regular presence on the Broadway and Off-Broadway stage, but he hasn't appeared on the New York stage since playing the lead in John Guare's Chaucer in Rome more than ten years ago. Still, his former vocation informs his current one. "I think what's absent from the plays I write is maybe a lot of literary merit," he says, laughing. "I tend to write plays that are scenes of conflict between people, because that's what actors do. I write plays that — I don't want to say they're 'actor friendly.' But they give preference to those things that are active, rather than friendly."

Norris doesn't perform in his own plays — "I don't think I can do both jobs well," he says — but he does think about how he might play the people he creates. "I don't think it's possible for me to write a character if I don't think I could act it," he explains. "I think writing is a private improvisation. I've never had the courage to be an improvisational actor, so I do it in secret, and let other people do it."

Though he calls acting "the thing I wanted to do my entire life," Norris seems content to neglect his old trade. "I kind of feel I got my fill of doing that, and also reached the limits of what I can convey as an actor." Neither does he necessarily hold the acting game up as a terribly high calling. He once called it a "lazy person's job," and stands by that characterization.

"Being in a play, once you get out of rehearsal into the run of the play, you work two hours a day," he says. "It's not such a hard job." (Before the actors out there howl in indignation, know that Norris thinks that "writing is even lazier.") What isn't a lazy person's job, he says, "is acting in a television series that shoots for..." He pauses briefly before thinking better of following this line of thought. "I don't want to get into that whole thing that has recently happened to me."

Brendan Griffin and Jeremy Shamos in Clybourne Park.
photo by Joan Marcus

"That whole thing" is a dispute he had with producer Scott Rudin that almost derailed Norris' Broadway debut. Rudin, according to reports, felt betrayed when Norris withdrew from playing a leading role in a television adaptation of Jonathan Franzen's celebrated novel "The Corrections." So Rudin withdrew as producer of the Broadway run of Clybourne Park. The contretemps fed the Broadway gossip mill for a few heady days in February and rudely introduced Norris to a public that had no fixed notion of the man.

Obviously, the production was eventually salvaged by other producers. And the writer is grateful, while remaining, well, Bruce Norris. "When you grow up you imagine things — the Pulitzer Prize, Broadway, the Royal Court — as things that happen in some Valhalla, some exalted realm that you're looking up to. It's incredibly gratifying to finally reach that supposed summit. But then when you get there and you look around and think, 'Oh, it looks the same here as it does everywhere else,' you think, 'Gosh, these are people just like me.'"

(A version of this article appears in the May 2012 issue of Playbill.)