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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.’ ”
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390