Capital Stage likes to wrap its theatrical seasons around a theme, and this year the six subscription offerings are called “The Homefront.” While that could imply a conservative domestic agenda, Capital Stage also prefers ideas on the edgy contemporary side, so it’s not serving up just any kitchen-sink drama.
As the season opens this week, the company will jump right into contemporary controversy with playwright Bruce Norris’ clever, knotty “Clybourne Park” — not exactly a traditional home-and-hearth work.
“Clybourne Park” won both the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and 2012 Tony Award for best play by audaciously spinning off from Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking “A Raisin In the Sun.” (“Raisin” was the first play to appear on Broadway written by an African American woman and the first Broadway production directed by an African American, Lloyd Richards.) Set in the same fictional house that Hansberry’s Younger family is set to occupy, Norris’ dark comedy unfolds in two acts 50 years apart. The first is set in 1959 as the all-white neighborhood nervously reacts to news that a black family has purchased the home. The second act, set in 2009, finds the area ironically in transition again as it has become a primarily working-class African American area that’s dealing with gentrification as young white families are buying back in. The same actors perform the characters in both halves of the play.
Director Michael Stevenson said the play offers challenges in both its high-wire subject matter and subtly shifting tones.
“I’ve never encountered a play like this one before, and I’ve seen all kinds of political dramas and satires,” Stevenson said.
“It has this weird structure, on top of which, nobody talks about race, ever. There’s no discussion. Even with Barack Obama as our president, there’s so little racial dialogue.”
Norris’ play has received both acclaim and criticism for its characters and the cagey polemics he puts them in. Still, it’s become a regional theater hit.
“I don’t want to call it a comedy — it is — but you also just take these sharp crazy turns, you don’t know what to think,” Stevenson said.
“When we were reading it the other day, something that I thought would be incredibly funny was horrible, and then something I thought was horrible turned about to be incredibly funny. The dialogue comes off the page in a completely different way than you think it will. It’s also a little scary, because I don’t know how audiences are going to react to it,” Stevenson said.
The play’s volatile unpredictability fits well with Capital Stage’s carefully considered risk-taking strategy in general. It’s the company’s ninth season, the third in its new theater on J Street and the last for co-founder and artistic director Stephanie Gularte. Gularte announced in spring that she will step down.
“We just finished our most successful season by a number of measurements,” Gularte said. “We pushed ourselves, and in most places we succeeded. It was our best-selling season ever — we’re ending the season in the black. It was a challenging year because of how big some of the shows were and in the end we pulled them off and felt good about the work.”
The company now faces its biggest challenge — finding someone to carry on after Gularte. The first phase of a national search has been completed, and applicants from the original 70 submissions are going through interviews with the Capital Stage board.
“We’re on track schedule-wise for what we planned,” Gularte said. “The process will take place over the next couple of months as the list gets smaller and smaller until we identify the right individual, and we’ll probably have an announcement by December.”
Gularte said opinions of the company from the candidates have given her and the board an invaluable perspective on where Capital Stage is and where the company wants to go.
“It’s been a really healthy thing for the organization at this stage to look at our strengths, our weaknesses and to make some really strong determinations about what our priorities are, ” Gularte said.
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder