We Live Here, a co-winner of Playhouse on the Square's NewWorks@TheWorks playwriting competition, isn't a great play. It's not very original either, owing much to Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking 1959 drama, A Raisin in the Sun, and to Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris' deliberate and provocative 2010 sequel. It's a good play, though, with the potential to become an even better play, and it's a great example of how a regional theater can develop new work that appeals universally while serving a unique audience. Unlike Raisin and Clybourne, which are both set in Chicago neighborhoods, Harold Ellis Clark's play is set in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans. Although it is not specifically about cultural shifts and displacement following Hurricane Katrina, that is the context, and a diverse collection of Southern voices makes We Live Here different enough, more immediate and familiar.
The play begins with a potentially life-threatening situation that's too current and recognizable. Anybody who follows the news knows it could escalate quickly and go terribly and tragically wrong. We're introduced to Calvin Chaisson, an angry African-American male who's duct-taped a white teenager to a chair and who isn't being 100 percent compliant with the nice police man who's been dispatched to deal with the situation. Sure, Chaisson is the justifiably rattled homeowner and the target of a racist threat, and he just caught the unapologetic kid vandalizing his house. But in the middle of the night, in the middle of the suburbs, in the heat of the moment, in an America that's anything but post-racial, minor details like these don't always seem to matter much, do they? But nobody gets shot here. Instead, a conversation about football breaks out, and the middle-class white kid is escorted home instead of to jail, with the promise of sterner treatment to come.
From the beginning, Clark tinkers with traditional cultural stereotyping, flipping scripts and immersing his viewers in a confusing white privileged world where things clearly aren't fair because everyone's good people. But this vision of suburbia isn't all perfect lawns and white picket fences, either. Methamphetamine has ruined lives. The white family unit has become unstable, and belligerent kids with bad values are raised by well-intentioned grandparents who can't control them. The newly arrived Chaissons are originally from the meaner (by reputation) streets of New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward and have moved to Metarie after winning their dream house in charity raffle. They're loving, hard-working, family-oriented folks with hardships in the rearview, promise in the future, and a baby on the way.
We Live Here benefits from John Maness' no nonsense direction and a strong and committed cast of professionals that includes Jerry Rogers, Michael J. Vails, Karin Barile, Gabriel Corry, Michael Corry, and Claire Kolheim, who's probably best known for her work in musicals like The Color Purple, but who's acting chops are every bit as powerful as her voice.
Actor Curtis C., a former Playhouse on the Square company member, returns to Memphis to play an effective but controversial civil rights activist with a taste for good beer.
We Live Here never fully overcomes its own conceits. Situations are contrived, outcomes seem more aspirational than actual, and the dialogue can bog down in portentous information drops. But the play's architecture is sturdy and hopefully it will have a life beyond TheatreWorks.
Playhouse on the Square produces Mountain View, its second NewWorks play, at TheatreWorks in July.