If playwright Bruce Norris’ recent stratospheric success is at all surprising, it’s because he has been so scathing in his indictment of the middle-class urban liberals who are the core of the theatergoing demographic. He pokes the establishment in the eye and gets rewarded with its highest accolades.
Since his drama “Clybourne Park” won theater’s triple crown starting in 2011 — the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award and London’s Olivier — Norris, 53, has been trying to manage the demands of success. Offers have poured in from across the globe for his plays, old and new.
Norris’ newest play, a big-cast critique of Western capitalism called “The Low Road,” premiered this spring at London’s Royal Court Theatre. He is revising another work, “A Parallelogram,” for a fall production in Los Angeles. And “Clybourne Park,” which opens Friday at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, also is about to bow in Australia.
Norris takes the acclaim in stride.
“The best thing about winning the Pulitzer is that you never have to feel bad about not winning the Pulitzer,” he said. “It’s liberating, really. Now, I can just do the work.”
For that, he has to make time. Norris spoke from a remote island off the coast of Maine in a hideaway owned by Mary Zimmerman, the Tony-winning director and playwright who also is his Northwestern University schoolmate.
Norris embeds a lot of intellectual, moral and political complexity in plays that, on the surface, seem like domestic dramas. He opens the cauterized scars of war in “Purple Heart,” his 2002 drama set in the 1970s. He strips away the progressive veneer of comfortable yuppies to reveal xenophobia and hypocrisy in “The Pain and the Itch.” And he pricks at bigoted beliefs, class issues and gentrification in “Clybourne Park,” whose regional premiere is being directed by his friend Lisa Peterson, a Guthrie regular.
“I love plays that are anchored in big ideas — Shaw, Kushner, Caryl Churchill,” said Peterson, who also is a playwright of “An Iliad,” which just closed at the Guthrie. “Bruce uses language and character to create these really dramatic, interesting arguments onstage. It’s a play that says, ‘Listen, we ought to look at how we talk with each other in this alleged post-racial age.’ ”
“Clybourne Park” borrows characters and plot elements from Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark 1959 drama, “A Raisin in the Sun,” about a black Chicago family’s move into a house in a good area that happens to be white. The first act of “Clybourne Park” is set in 1959 and includes Karl Lindner, the neighborhood representative in “Raisin” who wants to buy out the black family to keep the neighborhood all-white.
The second act of “Clybourne” is set 50 years later after the integrated neighborhood has declined and is now being gentrified by whites.
“Clybourne Park” is among several “response” plays inspired by “Raisin.” Robert O’Hara’s “Etiquette of Vigilance,” which premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre in 2010, and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s “Beneatha’s Place,” which just premiered at Baltimore’s Center Stage, both use a similar then-and-now structure. A Broadway revival of “Raisin” starring Denzel Washington is planned for next season.
Norris began crafting “Clybourne Park” right after President Obama’s 2008 election. He said it was written out of anger at the attitudes he saw, including among his friends.
“I feel there’s a lot of self-justification and backslapping that goes on from privileged people, white people,” he said, adding that he knows this subject intimately. “I’m a person who believes our moral positions are not clear. They’re pretty bad by virtue that we participate in a Western economic system that depends for its success on the exploitation of much of the world.”
Like his characters, Norris has a lot to say about a lot of things. But don’t mistake him for a political writer.
“Someone asked me in London recently, ‘Don’t you think the act of playwriting is an act of hope?’ ” Norris said. “No. It’s an act of exhibitionism. It’s self-motivated vanity. There’s no mission or moral imperative. Most people don’t get into theater because they want to help the world. That justification develops later. They want their parents to see them in a play.”
What seems like Norris’ overnight success has been more than 20 years in the making. The native of Houston, Texas, became an actor fresh out of Northwestern University in 1982. He had some success onstage in Chicago and New York. He was a replacement player in the 1985 Broadway run of Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues.” He also acted in Wendy Wasserstein’s “An American Daughter” in 1997.
But by his own admission, he started to shift gears “as acting became more difficult.” He wrote a play, “An Actor Retires,” in the early 1990s that was about the challenges of the business. Norris describes this early work, which got a production in Chicago, as “a one-man show with three other people.”
One of those other people was Martha Lavey, Norris’ fellow Northwestern grad who became artistic director of Steppenwolf in 1995. She commissioned him to write other things.
“Bruce’s willingness to examine the motives, and both the limitations and value of each of his characters — as well as his great, good humor in doing so — is what make his plays politically provocative without being polemical,” Lavey wrote when “Pain and Itch” premiered in Chicago.
“Clybourne Park” premiered off-Broadway at Playwrights’ Horizons in New York in 2010 with a cast that included Tony winner Frank Wood (“Sideman”). The play got further work at Trinity Repertory Theatre in Providence, R.I. It had a 16-week Broadway run in 2012 with its original cast.
That “Clybourne Park” has become such a hit surprises Norris, who is nonetheless thankful.
“When I first wrote it, I thought it was moribund, old-timey and static,” he said. “You get a sense of certain things working but you never know what’s going to resonate.”
Norris says that patrons at his plays often come up to him and explain that they were not part of the wave of whites who moved out of integrating neighborhoods all across the country for the suburbs. They seek exoneration, he says. It is not his to give, not that he would dispense such forgiveness anyway.
“We have the same thing unfolding in the school system now, where privileged people, mostly whites, are taking their kids out,” he said. “It’s an exact equivalent of the housing issues I deal with in ‘Clybourne Park.’ ”