The play begins in September 1959. Onstage the audience can see a cross-section of the first floor of a bungalow in the Clybourne Park neighborhood of Chicago. Visible is a living room, dining room, staircase and a series of doors—one that leads outside, one to the basement, and one to the kitchen. The house is well-furnished, but in chaos, with cardboard boxes piled across the stage. It is clear the white couple living in the house, Russ and Bev Stoller, is in the process of moving out.
The play begins with a description of the interior of a house in Clybourne Park. It is well taken care of, indicating that the neighborhood is affluent. This is notable mostly in how it compares to the set for Act 2, when the demographics of the neighborhood have changed, and the house’s dilapidated interior reflects the economic depression of the neighborhood.
Russ sits, reading a magazine, eating Neapolitan ice cream out of a carton. Although it is midafternoon, he’s barefoot and dressed in a pajama top and chinos. Bev comes downstairs and begins to pack a box. She tells Russ he doesn’t have to eat the ice cream, and he responds that it would just be going to waste otherwise.
Russ’s clothing and behavior is out of place in the 1950s, when middle class families dressed fairly formally even inside their own homes, and the concept of loungewear had yet to become popular. His strange outfit indicates that there is something wrong with his mental state.
Francine, a black woman dressed in a maid’s uniform, enters from the kitchen to talk to Bev. Bev tries to give Francine a chafing dish that she never uses. Although Francine admits she doesn’t have that type of dish, she tells Bev she can’t accept the gift. Bev continues to insist Francine take the dish, and Francine continues to decline it. Eventually Bev gives up and Francine returns to the kitchen.
Bev’s attempts to give her chafing dish to Francine are well-meaning but misguided. She genuinely cannot understand why Francine would not want one of her possessions, not considering that perhaps no one needs a chafing dish, or that Francine sees the offering as a condescending gesture.
Bev continues packing boxes in the living room. She sees Russ’s ice cream and considers the name, Neapolitan. She thinks it’s funny and wonders what the origin of it is. Russ thinks Neapolitan comes from Naples, Italy, but Bev disagrees. Russ isn’t initially engaged in the conversation. When Bev begins considering, out loud, what a person from Naples would be called, Russ grumbles, “Told you what I think,”
Bev attempts to connect to Russ but he resists her efforts. His grumbling is an indication that he feels his wife often ignores him or misunderstands him. This is likely true generally in their marriage from day to day, but it also proves true with regard to Bev’s treatment of Russ’s depression.
Bev looks for grammatical rules that govern the naming of people from cities that end with the letter “S.” Russ joins in, suggesting Des Moines, Brussels, and Paris, all of which Bev rejects as good examples, but in a good-natured way. Russ laughs at the word Muscovites (people from Moscow), and Bev jokes that they might be musky. As they talk, Francine enters and exits from the kitchen with packaging, but is either not noticed or actively ignored.
This is the first moment in the play where Russ and Bev seem to be happy to be together, and the first time that they genuinely connect. Conversations and word games related to geography remain a motif throughout the play—often temporarily bringing people together in their shared love of small talk and trivia. Francine, whom Bev sometimes treats as a friend, is ignored when it is inconvenient to pay attention to her.
Riffing on residents of the Congo, called Congolese, Russ wonders why people don’t say Mongolese. Bev tries to correct him, suggesting “Mongol-oid,” but is immediately embarrassed when Russ reminds her that term is used to refer to people with developmental disorders or learning disabilities. Bev mentions “the Wheeler boy,” a disabled boy who works bagging groceries at the local grocery store. There’s an awkward silence, before Bev says, “But that’s nice, isn’t it, in a way? To know we all have our place.” Russ agrees.
The word “mongoloid” was used specifically to refer to people with Down syndrome. It is now considered a slur, but in the 1950s it was widely used. Throughout the first act, “the Wheeler boy” is used as an example of someone who knows his place, and was able to integrate into the neighborhood despite his disability. Bev’s comment refers specifically to the boy, but also to her general outlook on life, an outlook that privileges order and niceties over complexity and nuance.
There is another silence before Russ starts the game again. He has remembered the capital of Mongolia, which does not impress Bev. It does remind her, however, that Russ was supposed to change the mailing address of their National Geographic subscription. Russ pretends he had forgotten, and Bev becomes angry, since she reminded him numerous times, but then he reveals he did it the previous week, and was just joking with her.
Russ attempts to joke with his wife, but his humor falls flat, and she becomes angry instead. Their relationship is rocky, as little disappointments—like Russ forgetting to cancel a subscription—can so swiftly ruin their good mood.
Unamused by Russ’s joke, Bev asks if he has moved the footlocker down from upstairs like she asked. He says he hasn’t because it’s a two-person job. She then asks him if he’s going to change out of his clothes, but Russ says he hadn’t thought about it. After another silence, Bev starts to remember, out loud, a joke Russ told at the Rotary last year. She tells Russ that he’s funny, but he rejects the compliment. Bev wonders why Russ doesn’t go to the club anymore.
Russ’s shabby appearance is an indication of some kind of mental instability or emotional difficulty—but Bev either misses or ignores it. Similarly, she doesn’t see his altered behavior or the fact that he no longer goes to the Rotary Club (an organization that he once enjoyed) as a sign that anything is amiss. Although she has noticed and is confused by it, she doesn’t seem to understand it.
Bev asks Russ not to shrug off her question and say “what’s the point,” because, by that logic, there’s no point in anything. She tells Russ that although he might want to “sit in a chair all day and wait for the end of the world,” that kind of behavior frightens her, and is not the way she wants to spend her life. Russ quietly tells Bev “Not trying to frighten you,” before announcing “Ulan Bator!”—the capital of Mongolia, a relic of their earlier conversation.
Although they do not mention it, Bev and Russ are both trying to put their lives together after the death of their son. Russ has fallen into an apathetic depression, and feels as though nothing matters. Bev keeps sane by staying busy, and she cannot understand Russ’s behavior. Russ attempts to make Bev laugh by bringing up their earlier conversation, but the moment has passed.
The phone rings and Francine answers. Her conversation with the man on the phone, who announces himself as Karl Linder, a neighbor, is interspersed with Bev and Russ’s conversation. Bev tells Francine that she’ll call Karl back, and promptly returns to the topic of the Rotary Club. She doesn’t understand why Russ refuses to go, and why he doesn’t care that people are concerned for him.
Bev still values the Clybourne Park neighborhood and the community it provides her. Although Russ no longer finds joy or solace in the community or in the Rotary Club, Bev cannot understand why his behavior has changed so radically.
Bev takes the phone from Francine and tries to convince Karl not to come visit, explaining that the house is in disarray and Russ is feeling under the weather. Russ is dismissive of Karl, but Bev’s phone call continues for several minutes. It is interspersed with Russ’s conversation with Jim, a local minister who has just entered through the front door.
Although Russ is dismissive of Karl, Bev is more polite, and humors their neighbor. She still feels like part of the community and works to maintain the family’s social status. Russ, meanwhile, is forced to humor Jim, the local minister whose friendship he has no real desire to keep.
Jim is friendly and good-natured, joking with Russ about the state of the house. Russ, listening in on Bev’s phone call with Karl, is distracted as Jim tells a long anecdote about how he injured his back moving a piano the previous month. Bev gets off the phone and starts to chat with Jim. She is much friendlier to him than Russ had been, and Jim appreciates the attention. Jim jokes that he was “trying to bestow the pearls of [his] wisdom” upon Russ, who insists he was listening.
Bev is invested in the Clybourne Park neighborhood, even though she and Russ will soon be leaving it. She values the connections and friendships she has with members of the community. Russ, meanwhile, has slowly cut himself off from everyone—his extended Clybourne Park community and even his wife, although he cares for her more than he cares for anyone else.
Russ asks Bev if Karl is coming over. She ignores the question and starts talking to Jim about Karl’s wife, Betsy, who is very pregnant. As they’re talking, Bev remembers her earlier question about the origin of the word Neapolitan, and asks Jim where it comes from. He agrees with Russ that it is related to Naples, and he and Russ continue to joke about geography. Bev is exasperated because she does not know enough trivia to join in, but encourages Russ to say “Ulan Bator,” which he had been pronouncing in a funny way. Russ refuses to say it, and Jim is left to stand uncomfortably as Russ and Bev bicker.
Russ, Bev, and Jim are unable to connect as a group and fail to have a conversation in which they’re all equally participating. Jim and Bev will happily gossip and discuss their neighbors, but that kind of small talk doesn’t interest Russ, who would prefer to talk about geography, a subject in which Bev is unable to keep up. Bev and Russ continually return to a joke that brought them together earlier in the act—Russ’s pronunciation of “Ulan Bator”—which fails to garner laughs although both use it as a kind of peace offering to the other.
Francine, who had entered from the kitchen and waited patiently for a break in the conversation, asks Bev if she is free to go. Bev asks her to move the footlocker she’d asked Russ to move earlier. Francine reminds Bev she needs to leave by three-thirty, which is soon, and Russ tells both women he’ll move the footlocker. Francine exits again, gathering her things to leave. Several times throughout the exchange, Jim repeats—to no one in particular—that he would help except that, as he said before, he recently hurt his back.
Francine has come in to work as a favor to Bev, but understandably does not want to spend her weekend working. Bev is not conscientious of Francine’s time, and doesn’t see that asking her to stay later is an imposition. This underscores the different way the two women see their relationship. Bev sees Francine as a friend informally helping out, but Francine surely wouldn’t be there at all if she weren’t getting paid. Put more broadly, Bev the white woman sees herself as the magnanimous friend of her black staff worker, but in doing so makes unreasonable demands on that staff worker.
Bev offers Jim lunch, but he declines. She jokes about Russ’s ice cream, and Russ responds, “can’t pack ice cream in a suitcase,” which Bev finds hilarious. Jim jokes you can only do that if you’re moving to the North Pole, and Bev responds, “Thank goodness we’re not moving South!” which leads to a moment of silence. Bev exits to the kitchen to see what food is available.
Bev always tries to participate in conversations and make jokes, but she often misspeaks—as she did earlier, when she referred to people from Mongolia as mongoloids. Here, the joke she makes is revealing: although she means it would be warmer in the South and the ice cream would melt, her joke also alludes to the fact that the southernmost neighborhoods of Chicago have a higher concentration of black residents. The resulting silence then shows how uncomfortable these characters are whenever the subject touches upon race, even accidentally.
Alone again, Jim and Russ make small talk. Jim overheard Bev tell Karl that Russ was under the weather, so Jim asks Russ what’s wrong. Russ explains he’s just taking time off to help Bev. They talk briefly about Jim’s back injury, and Jim confesses in a whisper that he had to wear a truss while he recovered.
Jim misunderstands Russ’s depression. Bev tells people he’s “under the weather” as a way of explaining his behavior, but it seems his malady is more psychological than physical. Talking about a cold is seen as acceptable, but talking about depression is not. In fact, Jim’s whisper about the truss he had to wear suggests that any mention of a man having weakness—physical or mental—is embarrassing.
Russ and Jim then discuss the move, including the fact that it will shorten Russ’s commute to just five minutes. Russ also says that he’s getting a new, carpeted corner office. Jim asks how Bev is doing, and Russ responds she’s fine, but that she worries and gets over excited. Jim wonders aloud if Russ is the cause of her anxiety, which Russ denies before suddenly asking Jim if Bev had asked him to come over.
Russ and Jim’s discussion of Bev is influenced by her gender. Jim not only assumes that because she’s a woman, Bev is more high strung and anxious—but also that, as her husband, Russ is the cause of her troubles. However, Jim is not only making an assumption; he’s also privy to inside information, and has reason to suspect that Russ is the cause of Bev’s distress because of his depressive behavior.
Russ is clearly uncomfortable, and looks for Bev in hopes she’ll come back into the room. Jim tells Russ that Bev cares about him—that in fact, “everybody cares about [him].” Russ responds that, although he’s not a psychiatrist, he has noticed people have a tendency to “brood,” and his advice is to “get up offa your rear end and do something.”
Russ himself is unwilling to acknowledge that he might be struggling with depression. He dismisses the whole field of psychiatry, and argues that anyone who feels like brooding should snap themselves out of it. Ironically, Russ has spent much of the play so far brooding, and has seemed unable to snap himself out of it. This is consistent with the play’s broader message about the unwillingness or inability of its characters to get to the heart of difficult or uncomfortable realities, whether it’s mental illness or racism.
Jim, hoping to comfort Russ, tells him his son was a hero to his country. This is the first time the audience has heard of Russ and Bev’s son, but Russ clearly does not want to discuss him: he talks over Jim. Jim assures Russ his son is in a better place and suggests that Russ might want to talk to someone about his emotions. Russ points out Jim is not a psychiatrist and asks him to mind his own business. Finally, Russ tells Jim “to go fuck [him]self,” which surprises and offends Jim.
Russ again dismisses the value of psychiatry. He’s uninterested in talking to a professional about his feelings, and equally uninterested in talking to Jim. Jim is just trying to connect with and soothe Russ, but it doesn’t work. Russ’s rebuke of Jim may seem harsh to modern readers, but would have been even more offensive in the 1950s when codes of conduct were more conservative. His willingness to curse emphasizes the ways in which he is not aligned with polite society.
Bev reenters from the kitchen, and notes the mood in the room has changed. Russ has stood up, and Jim tells Bev he’s going to leave. Bev asks Russ what he did to offend Jim, while Jim explains to Bev it’s clear Russ wants him out of the house. Bev complains to Russ that he is being ugly and she dislikes ugliness. Russ tells Bev he dislikes Jim encroaching on what he believes are private matters “between me and the memory of my son.” Bev and Jim discuss Russ’s mental state, and it is clear that Bev invited Jim over to talk to Russ about his emotions and recent troubling behavior.
Bev continues to play the role of the accommodating hostess, a role that is complicated by her hostile husband. Bev and Russ’s differences are clear in how they treat Jim, but also in how they treat the memory of their son, Kenneth. Bev remembers him fondly, and tries to stay positive and keep the ugliness of grief out of her life. By contrast, Russ feels that Bev is clinging too tightly to comfort, while he prefers to immerse himself in his despair. The couple’s inability to communicate directly about Russ’s behavior suggests that they lack the tools or language necessary to speak about the painful traumas of their past.
Russ moves toward the staircase. He tells Bev and Jim they can discuss his son, Kenneth, on their own time if it comforts them. Bev is indignant, and wonders if Russ thinks she doesn’t deserve comfort. Russ responds that Kenneth didn’t receive much comfort, so why should they. Jim interjects that he also served in the military, but Russ responds that Jim sat behind a desk like a coward. He couldn’t understand because he didn’t kill anyone. In the silence following this remark the doorbell rings.
No one is able to get through to Russ. Bev feels that he is trying to make her unhappy and take away her hopes for healing and emotional comfort. Jim tries to relate to Kenneth’s military service, but Russ rejects this olive branch. Kenneth was clearly misunderstood by the members of his community, and Russ feels that he himself is being misunderstood, too. Neither Kenneth nor Russ, however, seemed to know what they wanted, or what could make them feel better and more included. In this sense, Clybourne Park is deeply concerned with demonstrating the importance to its various characters of feeling seen and recognized by others.
Jim goes to open the door for Albert, Francine’s husband, who has come to pick her up. Russ exits upstairs. Jim doesn’t know whether to invite Albert in, so Bev does and makes small talk before letting him sit and wait for his wife. Jim, within earshot of Albert, whispers to Bev that he should go. Bev asks Jim to stay because she doesn’t want to be alone with Russ. She explains that Russ stays up late and doesn’t see the point in things he used to find fun.
Although Bev tries to be a friendly and welcoming hostess, interactions with Albert are awkward. Because he is black, she is less accommodating of him than she is of her white guests, leaving him to sit by himself while she talks with Jim. Russ’s emotional outbursts scare Bev, who doesn’t know how to cope with her husband’s erratic behavior. Having exhausted her resources, she turns to a friend for help.
Albert gets up to wait outside. Bev doesn’t understand why he’s leaving and calls for Francine, who eventually comes out dressed in street clothes and carrying bags of hand-me-downs. Bev jokes how lucky Francine is to have door-to-door service, and then tells Albert how much she appreciates having “a friend like Francine here, and on a Saturday.”
Albert likely feels that he is intruding on a private conversation, which is why tries to go outside. Bev’s joke to Albert is tone-deaf. Francine only has door-to-door service because the family has a single car, and she needs to be picked up if she doesn’t want to walk. Bev’s comment that Francine is her “friend” is also oblivious. Francine has come to work for her because she is her employee, not because Francine is doing Bev a favor.
As Bev says goodbye to Francine she mentions the footlocker, which still needs to be taken care of. Albert offers to move it, but Francine subtly tries to tell him she wants to leave, pretending they have an appointment for which they are running late. Albert doesn’t take the hint. Francine says she can’t help because her hands are full, and Albert offers to put her bags in the car. Francine says she can handle the bags herself, and she and Albert go to drop them in the car so she can help him move the trunk.
Although Francine cannot say it aloud, she is unhappy to be working on a Saturday, and is unhappy to be kept late into the afternoon. Her bags are not actually an issue, and are not actually the reason she cannot help with the trunk. Instead, she’s angry that her time is not being respected by Bev, and she is angry that Albert doesn’t share her indignation.
Once again, Bev asks Francine if she wants the chafing dish, and once again she declines. As Albert and Francine exit through the front door, they pass Karl Linder, who was about the ring the bell. Outside, Albert quietly asks Francine “What is the matter with you?”
Bev is unable to understand why Francine doesn’t want her serving dish, which is large, impractical, and far from a household necessity. Albert doesn’t understand Francine’s reluctance to help Bev. Albert, who doesn’t work for the Stoller family, has less reason to be frustrated by their dismissive treatment.
Bev invites Karl inside, but he hesitates, revealing his wife is in the car. Bev tells him to bring her in, and Karl disappears to fetch Betsy. Russ takes this moment to cross from the staircase to the kitchen. He’s now wearing shoes and a shirt. Bev makes a comment but he ignores her. Bev and Jim turn back to each other. She whispers that she hoped two and a half years since their son’s death and a new job would help Russ mourn. She worries she’s being silly but Jim assures her she isn’t. Russ crosses again, from the kitchen to the basement. Bev asks what he’s doing but he gives her no details.
Bev is a polite, conscientious hostess, kindly accommodating Karl and his wife, who are uninvited guests. Russ, by contrast, has put on clothes to look more presentable, but makes no effort to entertain the Linders. Once again Bev explains she doesn’t understand why Russ is acting so strangely. She feels that enough time has passed that he should have finished mourning, failing to consider that mourning takes different amounts of time for different people, and conditions like depression have no explicit expiration date. Without the proper tools to communicate about complex issues, the characters in Clybourne Park are often childlike in their helplessness.
Karl and Betsy return. Betsy is visibly very pregnant, and Bev coos over her stomach. Betsy is deaf, and her speech is often difficult to understand. Bev over enunciates when she speaks to Bev. Jim knows limited sign language and so finger-spells a greeting to Betsy. She laughs and signs to Karl, who tells Jim he misspelled, and told Betsy she was expecting a storm instead of a stork.
Although Bev and Jim make an effort to accommodate Betsy, they don’t entirely know how to treat her. Bev over-annunciates, which doesn’t actually help with lip reading, and Jim kindly tries to spell words out in sign language, although he isn’t very good and it just complicates communication. When Betsy speaks, it is difficult for the other characters to understand her. In the script her lines are translated, but her words might not be completely decipherable when spoken by an actor onstage.
Betsy jokes aloud that she’ll need an umbrella, and Bev is happy to understand the joke. Jim responds that he must have rusty fingers, which Betsy doesn’t understand at first, and Karl must translate. Betsy responds that Jim must need soap, and Jim laughs politely. Bev then re-explains the joke to Jim, who had laughed politely because he did not find the joke funny, not because he didn’t understand it.
The characters come together to laugh about Betsy’s joke, but their laughter is forced—likely an attempt to keep the conversation going more than a genuine response. Bev tries to make sure everyone is included and everyone understands, which just makes the situation more awkward—a behavior she repeats throughout the act.
Russ returns form the basement carrying a shovel. He asks Bev about his work gloves but she ignores him. He acknowledges Betsy because she says hello to him, but ignores Karl. Albert and Francine enter through the front door and go upstairs to deal with the footlocker. Bev invites Betsy to the kitchen to make iced tea. Karl remembers that Bev told him Russ was under the weather. He asks Russ if he’s contagious which takes a moment for Russ to understand, before responding, brusquely, “Not contagious.”
Bev refuses to communicate with Russ when she feels he is being rude. For the moment, she prioritizes her guests and her role as hostess over her role as his wife. Karl misunderstands Russ’s illness. Bev has been telling people he’s sick, but Russ doesn’t have any physical ailment—rather, he’s depressed. Karl mostly cares about Russ’s illness because he is concerned about protecting his wife, Betsy. He does not actually care about Russ’s health. Here, as later in Act 2, many opportunities for achieving real understanding are missed because the conversation plays out at a superficial level.
Karl tells Russ he has something he needs to talk to him about. Jim tries to leave but Karl says he thinks Jim’s insight could be helpful. Russ is uninterested but allows Karl to talk. He begins a speech several times but Bev interrupts to ask if he wants tea, and then again to deliver the tea. The second time Bev enters, Karl panics, worried something has happened to Betsy, but she’s fine. He asks Bev to make sure Betsy takes small, slow sips of her iced tea.
Karl is overprotective of Betsy. Although it is unlikely anything would happen to her, and although Bev is looking after her anyway, he immediately assumes Bev must be reentering the room to deliver some bad news. Karl treats Betsy like a child. As an adult woman she presumably knows how to drink tea without choking, and doesn’t need his constant supervision. Repeatedly throughout the play, men and white people are shown treating women and black people as incapable or inferior, when the female and black characters in the play are perhaps the ones least in need of help.
Betsy and Bev go to the dining table where they communicate by writing on a pad of paper. Karl resumes speaking, and explains he’s been so concerned about Betsy because her last pregnancy, two years before, ended with the death of the baby during delivery. Russ says he knew that, but offers no condolences. Karl begins to tell Russ he’s not trying to compare “our little…setback…to what the two of you endured,” but Russ interrupts him, asking him to get to the point.
Bev does her best to accommodate Betsy and to communicate with her as a friend despite the difficulties presented by her disability, which affects her ability to participate in normal conversation. Karl attempts to connect with Russ over the deaths of their children, but Russ has no desire to commiserate, and no desire to make small talk.
Karl announces that the neighborhood Community Association has uncovered that the buyers of the Stollers' house are black—or, as he says, “colored.” As he speaks, Jim, Russ, and Bev talk over him: Jim is incredulous, and Russ calls to Bev. Neither of the Stollers knew the identity of their buyers, as they sold the house through Ted Driscol, a real estate broker.
Although it was not his business, Karl has appointed himself as unofficial gatekeeper of Clybourne Park, which is, presumably, why he looked into the race of the family purchasing the Stoller house. The fact that they are black is shocking to the whole room, because racial segregation, although technically illegal, is still widely enforced by realtors and homeowners alike. In this moment, the racism that has kept to the margins of various interactions takes center stage.
Jim interrupts Karl, asking if he should be saying “Negro” instead of “colored.” Karl responds that he says them interchangeably, “and of course I said Negro to them.” He continues that the broker, Ted, is the sort of man to put his financial interests over that of the community, and reminds the room of a black family who moved onto Kostner Avenue, nearby.
Jim and Karl’s discussion of “Negro” versus “colored” makes it seem as though they genuinely care about African Americans and their feelings. In reality, this is a show of politeness that obscures their deeply racist opposition to integrating their neighborhood. The terms they use matter less than their actual beliefs, which are that black people should be kept out of the neighborhood.
Karl continues to talk, saying that he’s gone to meet with the family, and although he believes Clybourne Park is a “progressive community,” which has accommodated Gelman’s grocery store, which used to be Kopeckne’s, this is too far. Murray Gelman, he points out “found a way to fit in,” and “fitting into a community is what it all comes down to.” Everyone also agrees that Mr. Gelman integrated more easily because he did things like hiring Mr. Wheeler, who is disabled.
Gelman’s grocery store was presumably run by a Jewish family, whereas Kopeckne’s which was likely run by Protestants or at least Christians. The group implies they’re tolerant of Jewish people, and therefore progressive, but it seems that racial integration is too much to ask. It’s worth noting, also, that race—because its definitions are largely socially constructed—has shifting boundaries. In the 1950s, a Jewish man such as Gelman would not have been seen as “white” by most Americans—and therefore, the white characters onstage probably think of their acceptance of Gelman as a sign of racial tolerance.
Karl doesn’t think integrating will lead to positive change, and argues that to let a black family move in would disregard the needs of the community. Bev wonders if the family moving in has needs, but both Karl and Jim reject her condescendingly, saying she’s right in principle, but is ignoring the commandment to “love thy neighbor,” specifically the neighbors she already has. Bev wonders why she can’t love these people who would become her neighbors, but Karl says she can’t have it both ways, and points out that she’s moving, anyway. Bev continues to argue but Karl, frustrated, shuts her down saying, “Darling, I came to talk to Russ.”
Karl and Jim see the established white community in Clybourne Park as an important group of people to protect. While Bev thinks every person should be considered, including the black family moving in, Karl and Jim do not see this family as a part of their neighborhood, and as a result, they do not see them as worthy of their empathy. Karl engages with Bev for a while, but eventually brushes her off. He wants to talk to Russ, whom he sees as the man of the house—the patriarch, the one capable of making decisions—despite the fact that Bev is much more involved in the neighborhood and with her neighbors than he is.
Albert comes down from upstairs, his jacket off. He tries to interrupt the conversation but is ignored until a large Army footlocker comes crashing down the stairs. Francine, who had been holding on to it, has lost her grip. She comes running down the stairs after the trunk, apologizing. Russ, frustrated that Bev ignored his promise that he would move the trunk, yells that he said he’d move it. Albert offers to move the trunk from where it sits, blocking the stairs, but Russ tells him to leave it, before getting up and storming down to the basement.
As the footlocker careens down the stairs it mirrors the trajectory of the conversation. The assembled neighbors are on a verbal collision course that will soon spiral out of their control, spanning multiple topics and reaching back into the past and Kenneth’s suicide. The trunk also reminds Bev and Russ of a continuing argument they’ve been having: Bev has asked Russ to move the trunk multiple times, and although he has repeatedly said he would, he has not.
As Albert and Francine prepare to leave, Jim intercepts them. He wants to know how they would feel moving into a neighborhood like Clybourne Park. Karl tries to interrupt, arguing they should ask “those who stand to lose,” but Jim presses on.
Although Jim is implicitly asking whether Albert and Francine, a black family, would feel comfortable in a white neighborhood, he does not directly ask about race, instead using coded language. It is reflective of the characters’ general inability to address uncomfortable subjects directly or productively, instead sowing division and further discomfort.
Francine doesn’t want to offend anyone, and keeps repeating how nice the neighborhood is. Bev keeps trying, unhelpfully to rephrase Jim’s question, until Albert cuts her off: he understands that Jim is asking how they would feel “living next to white folks.” Bev, uncomfortable, recalls how she and Francine “over the years […] have shared so many wonderful” memories, a reverie Karl interrupts.
After prevaricating for several minutes, Albert finally asks the question Jim has been trying to ask. Jim was afraid to make the conversation explicitly about race, but Albert is willing if it means they will be able to stop talking in euphemisms. Bev tries to argue that white and black people can get along because she and Francine are close friends. Francine agrees in the moment, but has not demonstrated a great love for Bev throughout the play so far.
Karl shares that he believes different groups of people have different customs, for example Betsy is Scandinavian, and eats a dish called lutefisk that he dislikes. Karl wonders if Francine would even find food she enjoyed at the local grocery store. Albert jokes he couldn’t shop anywhere that didn’t sell pig feet and collard greens, and Francine says, defiantly, that she likes spaghetti and meatballs.
Karl and Jim point to reasons that black and white people are different. Karl tries to get Francine to say she would be unable to shop at the local grocery store, and Albert jokes that he only eats the collard greens and pigs feet, foods that are staples in African American cuisine—suggesting Albert understands perfectly well that he’s being treated as a stand-in for all black people.
Jim points out that the local church is more reserved than the First Presbyterian in the Hamilton Park neighborhood.
The Hamilton Park church is primarily black, whereas the Clybourne Park church is predominantly white. Jim argues that because the black church is more lively, its congregation members would not fit in the with the white residents of his neighborhood.
Russ returns, calmer, from the basement, in time to hear Karl bring up skiing as a point of racial division. Karl has never seen a black person skiing, and so concludes “there is just something about the pastime of skiing that doesn’t appeal to the Negro community.”
All of Karl’s arguments regarding racial difference are flimsy, but this one is especially preposterous. He ignores that perhaps black people would also like to ski, but that economic factors prevent them from being able to take such expensive trips. It speaks to a general tendency not to see racial differences as systemic, but rather to take an essentialist view of what makes blacks and whites different.
Russ interrupts Karl, and reminds him the house is sold, and that he and Bev are moving on Monday. Karl reveals that the Community Association made a counter offer to the buyers, who rejected the offer, but he points out that the Stollers could halt the sale and say that Ted had deceived them about the buyers. Bev points out the family “could be perfectly lovely,” but Karl thinks that is beside the point. He predicts that once a single black family moves in, white families will begin to leave, and the neighborhood will decline, until it is a primarily black neighborhood with a few white families, like his, that are unable to leave.
Karl attempts to remind the Stollers that even though they are leaving the neighborhood, they still have an obligation to it. He sees the arrival of a black family as something that will irrevocably damage Clybourne Park, and will lead to a complete racial turnover. In the 1950s, as today, black families, on average, were less wealthy than white families, so Karl was in fact correct that an influx of black families would lead to a decrease in neighborhood wealth overall. Still, although he understands the economics of the situation, he lacks any empathy for the black families themselves.
Karl then asks Francine and Albert how they would feel, if white people moved into their neighborhood, reflecting, “that might be to their advantage,” before Russ asks him to stop speaking. The two argue back and forth about Karl’s right to speak before Karl, offended, finally leaves. Betsy, unable to keep up with the conversation, asks Karl what happened as they head outside.
Karl’s assumption that Francine and Albert’s neighborhood would be enhanced by the addition of a white family is clearly racist. Betsy, who had been included in small talk earlier, was entirely excluded from this conversation, partially because of her deafness, and likely partially because Karl does not feel like these matters concern her. In any case, Karl’s treatment of Betsy is reflective of ways in which different characters in the play are excluded because of disadvantages that are outside their control.
Jim rises to leave, and Francine asks Bev if it’s okay to go, but before anyone can move Karl bursts back in through the front door. He threatens to tell the new family moving in why the house is being sold below market value. Russ forcefully asks Karl to leave, but Karl continues talking, accusing the Stollers of behaving in their “own selfish interests,” instead of that of the community. Russ halts the conversation by calling Karl a “son of a bitch.”
Once again, Karl tries to convince the Stollers to consider the neighborhood, and the debt they owe to their community. He feels that allowing a black family to move in ignores the needs of all the white families of Clybourne Park. Karl’s accusations of selfishness are particularly ironic because he’s selfishly advocating for the forceful exclusion of a black family from his neighborhood.
Russ, fed up, begins an explosive monologue. Throughout, Karl tries to cut him off for the sake of pregnant Betsy, whom he tells to wait in the car (though she does not go). Russ questions the notion that he has a community, explaining that he feels people have treated him and Bev like outsiders for the past two and a half years. He questions the importance of having a community if that community would not even help his son, Kenneth, after he was discharged from the military, accused of murdering civilians. Russ is outraged that Gelman’s Grocery would hire a man with a disability but they wouldn’t hire Kenneth.
Russ feels that Karl is unfairly asking him to consider a community that has not been considering him, and did not consider his son. Russ has been alienated from the community since before Kenneth’s suicide, and seems to blame the community’s unkindness for the suicide itself. He has no obligation to a neighborhood that he believes caused his son’s death. Karl once again attempts to protect Betsy from offensive speech. This is ironic, as she cannot hear, and has not even been following the conversation.
Bev doesn’t believe Kenneth committed the crimes of which he was accused, and remembers how he was a gentle boy, calling on Francine to corroborate. Karl begins to apologize for bringing up this fraught family history, but Bev accuses him of intentionally using the tragedy of their son’s death to manipulate them.
Related to their earlier discussion, Bev prefers comfort, which sometimes means she ignores the truth. Russ, meanwhile, has been stewing in the tragedy of their son’s death, which has emotionally devastated him. Bev’s suggestion that Russ is using his grief to manipulate others implies that she sees his depression as being somehow inauthentic, further reinforcing the notion that men were expected not to exhibit emotion.
As Bev and Karl speak, Russ crosses to the footlocker and extracts a letter, which he begins to read. It is Kenneth’s suicide note, which addresses his mother and father and tells them not to blame themselves. Bev becomes immediately agitated, and locks herself in the bathroom until Russ stops reading. Jim tells him to calm down, but Russ just swears at him. Karl is upset that Russ is cursing around Betsy, but Russ simply tells Betsy to “go fuck [her]self,” which she doesn’t understand.
Kenneth’s letter, which was meant to communicate his final thoughts to his parents, and to ease their pain, has instead led to greater anguish. It is unclear if Bev ever read the note, and although Russ has, it seems he has not internalized its message. Once again, Karl tries to protect Betsy from hearing offensive language, but she cannot hear it, and does not understand when Russ swears at her.
Russ sarcastically tells Karl he can make copies of the letter and hand it out at Rotary, saying “Rotary news: Kid comes back from Korea, goes upstairs and wraps an extension cord around his neck.” He tells Karl he can tell the buyers whatever he wants, but he personally doesn’t care if “a hundred Ubangi tribesman” move in: he’s through with the neighborhood and all the people in it.
In this explosive monologue, Russ makes it clear for the final time that he has cut all ties with the neighborhood. Kenneth’s note, which was mean to bring some kind of peace to his parents, is used as a tool to further alienate them from their community. By using hyperbole and making the jab about “a hundred Ubangi tribesmen,” Russ also demonstrates that he isn’t necessarily a crusader for integration, that he truly does not care about the neighborhood, and that perhaps he even enjoys the idea of helping spread some chaos in the neighborhood he has grown to hate.
The room is stunned into silence for a moment. Jim suggests bowing heads in prayer and Russ threatens to punch him. Jim backs up and trips over a moving box. Karl, afraid for Betsy’s safety, sends her running out of the house to the car.
Russ shows no concern for his reputation at this point. He has worn pajamas in front of friends, he has used curse words, and now he has threatened physical violence. For perhaps the first time, Karl’s concern for his wife seems justified. Russ likely wouldn’t hit Betsy, but Karl’s precaution shows that Russ has crossed a line in the eyes of those around him.
Albert goes to intervene. Francine tries to make him stay out of it, but he puts his hand on Russ’s shoulder. Russ then turns on him, offended that Albert touched him in his own home. Karl and Jim take this moment to leave. Albert backs away from Russ, and Francine reprimands him. She thinks “they’re all a buncha idiots,” and Albert was idiotic for trying to get involved. Francine exits to the car without Albert, who is left in the middle of the living room.
Although Albert is just trying to help and Russ has acted as though he is potentially supportive of integration, his response to being touched by Albert makes it clear his views on race are anything but enlightened. Francine is frustrated that she and Albert were brought into this fight. She is not invested in the Stoller family and does not have any interest in helping them work through their problems. In this way, although she is treated as an inferior, Francine remains one of the more dignified characters to appear in all of Act 1.
Bev returns to the living room from the bathroom. She offers to pay Albert for moving the footlocker, which he declines. She insists that “it’s just money,” but he refuses to take it. She tries to give him the chafing dish, which he does not want, and he eventually tells her “we don’t want your things. Please. We go our own things,” which offends her. As he leaves she tells him she would be “proud” and “honored” to have Albert, Francine, and their two children as neighbors. Albert corrects her: they have three children. Bev continues that maybe people, black and white, could learn from each other if they lived together, but trails off. Albert leaves to the car.
Although Bev tries to be generous in offering Albert her chafing dish, it comes off as thoughtless, as does her dismissal of money, a luxury not everyone has. Even after Albert explains that he doesn’t want the dish, Bev doesn’t understand why, and takes personal offense. She sees his rejection of the dish as a rejection of her. But even as she tries to prove that she cares about Albert and Francine she reveals she doesn’t even know how many children they have. In fact, she does not know them at all. That Bev trails off indicates that she can barely muster enough optimism about race relations in America to finish her sentence.
Russ, who had dragged the footlocker out to the backyard through the kitchen, returns with the work gloves he was looking for earlier. He tells Bev he’ll dig a hole to bury the footlocker tomorrow. He apologizes for losing his temper, but she tells him it’s all right. He then brings up his commute, and how easy it will be to get to the office. Bev wonders what she’ll do while he’s gone, and the two of them struggle to come up with anything. Bev says, “things.” Russ suggests “projects.” The lights fade as Russ says, one final time, the capital of Mongolia: “Ulan Bator!”
Bev and Russ calm their nerves with small talk. They don’t say anything new to each other, but by repeating facts about Russ’s commute and thinking about their daily routines they try to will themselves back into normality. Unfortunately, as they wonder what Bev will do each day, a hole in her life is uncovered. Without a job, a son to care for, of any friends or hobbies, she’ll be lonely and bored. Once again Russ uses “Ulan Bator,” a phrase which earlier in the act made Bev laugh, as a peace offering. These words could be read as a suggestion that they might learn to get along once again, but might also suggest that they truly have nothing to talk about.