"Clybourne Park" isn't an easy play.
But it's a good and important one, says Mark Clements, director of the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play that Arizona Theatre Company opens in previews Saturday.
"Clybourne" is wickedly funny, disturbing, and tackles big issues: gentrification and bigotry, the kind that is quiet and disguised under politically correct language, says Clements, speaking from his office at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, which co-produced the play with ATC.
"It's not just about race," he says. "It's about political correctness, and about how far we have assimilated. It forces everyone to look at themselves."
The Bruce Norris play takes place over two time periods.
The first act is set in 1959. A black family fights to purchase a home in the exclusive, all-white Chicago neighborhood of Clybourne Park.
It's 50 years later in the second act. Clybourne Park is now predominately African-American, and the neighborhood has deteriorated but is slowly becoming hip. A white family now wants to purchase the same house.
"You see how far we've come, and is that something we can be proud of?" Clements says of the play.
What the play does is quietly, without lecturing, force us to look at our own prejudices, and to really examine our language and attitudes, which often put a veil over a bigotry we aren't even aware of.
The playwright "reminds us that America has a long way to go before it gets anywhere near its promised nirvana of racial reconciliation, if it ever does," Frank Rich wrote in a 2012 essay in New York magazine.
"He tells us that unreconstructed white racists, of whom there are still a significant number in America, are not the whole problem."
"The thing about racism ... the white supremacists, they are obvious, easy to spot," says Clements. "The low-level racism is the danger."
"Clybourne Park" makes its point with often shocking humor, thumbing its nose at what is politically correct.
"You find yourself watching the audience as much as you watch the actors when some of these jokes are told," says Clements.
The topics the play touches on are ones with which most everyone deals, he adds.
"How comfortable are you with a family of a different race living next to you, or a gay person? Those things come up all the time, and those are the kind of buttons that the playwright pushes. We begin to ask, 'Is that me? My husband? My wife?' "
What makes "Clybourne Park" particularly effective, says Clements, is the playwright's lack of interest in wagging his finger at us.
"It manages to not force a point of view; it just puts the issues out there," he says.
"He isn't seeking to resolve anything; the answers aren't there. ... It manages that tricky line of funny, informative and raising some huge topics."
If you go
• What: Arizona Theatre Company's production of "Clybourne Park."
• By: Bruce Norris.
• Director: Mark Clements.
• When: Previews are 8 p.m. Saturday; 7 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. Opening is 7:30 p.m. April 12. Continues through April 27.
• Where: Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.
• Tickets: $32-$89. Discounts available, including $10 student seats .
• Reservations/information: 622-2823 or www.arizonatheatre.org.
• Running time: About 2 hours with one intermission.
• Cast: Lee E. Ernst, Anthony Fleming III, Marti Gobel, Grant Goodman, Jenny McKnight, Gerard Neugent, Greta Wohlrab and Taylor Rascher.