COOKEVILLE – The year is 1959, and a white neighborhood outside of Chicago is about to be shaken up.
“A black family is moving in,” explained Kathleen Gilpatrick, director of the Cookeville Performing Arts Center’s Backstage production of “Clybourne Park,” which opens Friday, Aug. 18, at 7:30 p.m., kicking off the series’ 25th season.
Meanwhile, white community leaders are trying to stop the family from buying the house.
Fast forward 50 years to 2009.
The same house still stands but has new owners – a young white couple. This time, a petition is going around the now predominantly black neighborhood to stop them from making renovations that would drastically change the look of the structure.
“This is a story about gentrification and what happens to the history and makeup of a neighborhood when new people come in and try to change it,” Gilpatrick said. “It’s also about political correctness and people being able to talk to each other about difficult subjects.”
Gilpatrick, one of the founders of the Backstage Series, first saw “Clybourne Park” – written by Bruce Norris in 2010 as a spin-off to the 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun” – on Broadway in 2011.
“I just fell head over heels in love with the show and vowed that someday I would direct it,” she said. “I think it’s so relevant today. The same thing is happening in a lot of communities.”
The play will be presented in two acts, with actors portraying different characters in both the 1959 and 2009 settings – a challenge to be taken on by professional hair and makeup designer and veteran CPAC stagehand Maggie Harris-Caudill of Gainesboro.
Set designer and technical director Matthew Wilson of CPAC also faces challenges.
Gilpatrick said, “The set change itself is going to be quite the feat. It will go from a 1959 home to the same house in 2009 which has become vacant.”
Wilson is also an assistant producer of the show, along with CPAC’s Kim Frick-Welker, who doubles as stage manager and scenic artist. Chad McDonald, Cookeville Leisure Services cultural arts superintendent, is the head producer, while CPAC’s Patrick Mannle serves as light designer. Anthony Herd is the costume designer, and Steve Gwilt is the box office manager and program editor.
The “Clybourne Park” cast includes Pat Frank as “Russ” and “Dan,” Holly Mills as “Bev” and “Kathy,” Alicia Northern as “Francine” and “Lena,” Jonathon Phipps as “Jim,” “Tom” and “Kenneth,” Joshua Northern as “Albert” and “Kevin,” Jacob Roberts as “Karl” and “Steve” and Sarah Cooper as “Betsy” and “Lindsey.”
“The script is really complex and has such a deep story,” said Roberts, who returns to CPAC’s Backstage after having participated in last year’s production of “Relatively Speaking.”
“Every time you flip a page you’re learning something new about the characters, the situations they’re a part of and how those situations tie them together – no matter how separate they may seem.”
Phipps, who recently moved to Cookeville from Philadelphia, brings acting experience as well. He described the play as “very edgy.”
“The audience should definitely be aware of that,” he said. “There’s a certain kind of humor that needs to be handled delicately. It’s hysterical if it’s handled right, but if it’s not handled right, it could be very awkward. So we’re working on that and being real about it. It’s not a farce, but it has a lot of over-the-top characters in a very real and immediate situation.”
“Clybourne Park” is a production of Cookeville Leisure Services’ cultural arts division through an arrangement with the Dramatist Play Service Inc. in New York. It contains adult themes and language and is unsuitable for children.
It’s the first of three Backstage productions planned for the series’ 25th season at CPAC.
Backstage shows differ from other performances in that everything is on the stage – the set, the actors and even the audience.
“The Backstage Series provides an intimate theater setting for audience and actors,” Frick-Welker said. “Patrons actually sit on the stage just a few feet from the actors, which allows for an experience not possible with mainstage productions. The energy between actor and patron is palpable, which I love as an actor, director and audience member.”
Following Friday’s premiere, “Clybourne Park” continues Aug. 19, 20, 22, 24, 25 and 26 at 7:30 p.m.
“It’s a very thought-provoking show,” Gilpatrick said.
Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and $7 for students. For more information, call CPAC at 931-528-1313 or visit www.cpactn.com.