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Originally published May 6, 2012 at 8:02 PM | Page modified May 7, 2012 at 6:20 AM

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Even when race takes stage, talking about it isn't easy

Sometimes art gets more real than life. The play "Clybourne Park" invites people to think about race, which remains an uncomfortable topic, even as it remains constantly in view.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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My wife and I saw "Clybourne Park" at the Rep recently.

The play kept returning to mind when I thought about recent mentions of race in the news.

I read a piece on the presidential campaign and thought about the play. Some white voters in swing states, The New York Times reported last week, are likely to steer clear of Obama because of race.

You'll recall that some folks thought Obama's election meant we'd reached the promised land of racial equality, even race irrelevance. Nope.

A central message of the play is that some things have changed, but not everything. Polls and statistics may support that message, but not in ways that make as deep an impression as characters on stage.

Race remains an uncomfortable topic, even as it remains constantly in view, in the headlines and in its effects on people's lives.

This play invites people to think and even talk about it.

(You should read my colleague Misha Berson's review, seati.ms/KkdYnC.)

Briefly it follows Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play "A Raisin in the Sun," about a black family trying to move out of Chicago's slums and into the suburbs.

The first act of "Clybourne Park" is set in the house, just before the black family from "Raisin" moves in.

The same group of black and white actors plays a different set of characters in the second act, which is set in 2009, after the neighborhood has flipped from white to mostly black and now young white people are returning.

In the first act, the white people say anything they like and the black people mostly keep quiet. In the second, both speak but are cautious and defensive. The play is accessible because individual characters interacting are easy to relate to, but racism is more complicated and systemic than individual interactions may make it seem.

It's natural that we connect more with a compelling human narrative. It's that sort of narrative that's driven attention to stories about the Trayvon Martin case, which was often reduced to strong, clear characters in a straightforward conflict.

But the truth is that neither the issues in the play nor those in the Trayvon Martin shooting were simple; it's just that the other stuff — individual complexity or systemic racism — is harder to grasp.

Civil conversations about this sort of thing are difficult to have.

When I wrote about the killing of Trayvon Martin on March 25 (seati.ms/IMXF32), I said it was a sign of progress that the outrage was broadly shared. But it turns out we aren't as close in our views of the case as I first thought.

Gallup released a poll April 5 that showed wide differences in perceptions between black people and other Americans.

Most people said they were following the case to some degree, but 52 percent of black people said they were following the case very closely, versus 19 percent of other people.

Was racial bias a factor in the shooting and the events that led up to it? Fifty-two percent of blacks said yes, but only 31 percent of other people did.

As with most things, I'd guess people assume that those who don't share their views are simply wrong.

Real conversations can help people understand how they each arrive at their views, which could lead to better understanding all around. But that's as hard to do in real life as it was on the stage.

An April 12 New York Times story about the play coming to Broadway said the actors themselves found their roles emotionally taxing, especially the first act in which so many painful words are said that some of the actors asked for breaks in rehearsal to calm themselves.

Sitting in the audience is a lot easier. The Rep invited people to take another step and attend discussions led by a panel after Saturday matinee (2 p.m.) performances. The last discussion will be this Saturday.

Talking around race hasn't made misunderstandings or racism go away yet; more engagement couldn't hurt.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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