Most of the conversations in Clybourne Park break down at a certain point and devolve into trivia, arguments, shouting matches, or misunderstandings. Whether it is literal failures of communications (such as those revolving around Betsy, who is deaf) or more abstract breakdowns (like conversations derailing into crude joke telling), Clybourne Park is a whirlwind of words, few of which are picked up and accurately interpreted by the other characters on stage. However, communication—when it is done effectively—can bring people together in big and small ways. Not only can inside jokes and happy memories help unite couples and help families navigate small talk with one other, but communication is essential to resolving conflict and healing wounds. One of the great tragedies of Clybourne Park is that rampant miscommunication throughout the play drives all its characters apart.
The second act of the play revolves around a single, continually interrupted meeting, during which the characters attempt to work through a twenty-page document of proposed guidelines for neighborhood renovations. The failure of the group to work through this document (the two couples and their lawyers only make it to page three) is representative of the larger issue of how the characters talk to one another. The conversation ends with everyone feeling personally attacked. The central question of whether or not Lindsey and Steve are gentrifying the neighborhood—and whether there’s any way for them to mitigate their impact—remains unanswered. For what feels like half an hour, Lena attempts to make a comment, but is constantly interrupted and brushed aside. The other characters continually apologize for speaking over her and remind her that she doesn’t need permission to speak, but in the end it seems she does, because otherwise she’d never get the opportunity. At various points Tom gets up to answer his phone, Kathy spends time listening to voicemails, and Dan comes in with questions about the backyard, but unfortunately none of this helps the group work through the document they assembled to discuss.
Even Kenneth’s suicide letter to his parents is unable to communicate what he has been feeling, and why he feels the need to take his own life. Russ reads his son’s suicide note, but it only makes him feel more frustrated and more helpless. It’s unclear whether Bev has ever read Kenneth’s letter, but when Russ begins to read it aloud her response suggests she has not, or at least has no desire to revisit it. She also wants to literally bury Kenneth’s footlocker, including his letter, which doesn’t seem to indicate that she or Russ desire an ongoing engagement with their son’s memory. It’s only in the play’s final moments, as Dan (played by the same actor as Russ) unearths Kenneth’s chest and begins to read his letter that it seems as though Kenneth’s message has finally been received by someone. More generally, it seems this is the first time in the play that one character has finally gotten through to another.
Especially central to the play is the communication, or lack thereof, between couples. Although there are five different married couples onstage in the course of the play, each one experiences at least one major failure of communication, whether this means having different goals, different tastes, or different opinions. At the root of this conflict is the fact that each person in a couple is an individual, with their own interests and priorities—and the fact that two people are married doesn’t mean they’re a united front. When Albert comes to pick Francine up, Francine clearly wants to leave, and has even lied to Bev, telling her she has an appointment and cannot stay all day. Although Francine tries to get Albert to play along, he exposes her lie when he offers to stay an extra few minutes to help Bev move a trunk. Lindsey and Steve are constantly bickering. They argue about Steve’s off-color joke and about the renovation of their house, and they clearly argued in the past about having a child. It seems like although they’ve compromised enough to remain married, they are united on few fronts.
The play’s repeated breakdown of communication leads to some humorous situations for the audience, but for the current and soon-to-be residents of Clybourne Park, it leads to frustration and even threats of violence. When two people are not communicating, it means that even in the best-case scenario, neither of them gets what they want, and in the worst case scenario, each person comes away thinking the other is a racist, or a bigot, or a violent maniac. A 2010 New York Times review of the play noted how “the emptiness of most human communication” is evident in all the characters’ interactions. Indeed, much of the stage time is taken up with trivia, small talk, and niceties. Although moments of true connection between characters are rare, the play seems to urge its readers to be patient and learn to listen in order to communicate successfully.
Communication and Miscommunication ThemeTracker
Communication and Miscommunication Quotes in Clybourne Park
Tell ya what I think. And I’m not a psychiatrist or anything but I do think a lotta people today have this tendency, tendency to brood about stuff, which, if you ask me, is, is, is — well, short answer, it’s not productive. And what I’d say to these people, were I to have a degree in psychiatry, I think my advice would be maybe, get up offa your rear end and do something.
Bev: Well, you’re being ugly, and I don’t like ugliness.
Russ: — private matters, matters that are between me and the memory of my son —
Bev: I think his mind has been affected, I really do.
Russ: — and if the two of you want to talk about Kenneth on your own time, if that gives you some kind you comfort —
Bev: And what’s wrong with comfort? Are we not allowed any comfort anymore?
Now, Russ, you know as well as I do that this is a progressive community.
Karl: It’s a colored family.
Jim: Sorry, don’t we say Negro, now?
Karl: I say Negro —
Jim: Well, it’s only common courtesy, and I’m —
Karl: — I say them interchangeably —
Jim: — not trying to tell you how to conduct your business.
Karl: — and of course I said Negro to them — No I think we both know what you’re doing.
Bev: What about this chafing dish? Did you see this dish?
Albert: Well, we got plenty of dish—
Bev: Not one of these. Francine told me.
Albert: Well, that’s very kind of you, but—
Bev: She said you didn’t have one and somebody should take it and—
Albert: But we don’t need it, ma’am.
Bev: —make use of it, so if you let me just wrap it for you.
Albert: Ma’am, we don’t want your things. Please. We got our own things.
Albert: Trying to explain to you.
Bev: Well, if that’s the attitude, then I just don’t know what to say anymore. I really don’t. If that’s what we’re coming to.
Steve: The history of America is the history of private property.
Lena: That may be —
Steve: Read De Tocqueville.
Lena: —though I rather doubt your grandparents were sold as private property.
Steve: Ohhhhh my god. Look. Look. Humans are territorial, okay?
Lindsey: Who are you?
Steve: This is why we have wars. One group, one tribe, tries to usurp some territory — and now you guys have this territory, right? And you don’t like having it stolen away from you, the way white people stole everything else from black America. We get it, okay? And we apologize. But what good does it do, if we perpetually fall into the same, predictable little euphemistic tap dance around the topic?
Kevin: You know how to tap dance?
Steve: See? See what he’s doing?!!
Lindsey: Maybe quit while you’re ahead.
Steve: No. I’m sick of — No. Every single word we say is — is — is scrutinized for some kind of latent — Meanwhile you guys run around saying n-word this and n-word that and whatever. We all know why there’s a double standard but I can’t even so much as repeat a fucking joke that the one black guy I know told me —
Steve:… Are you “offended”?
Steve: Neither am I.
Lindsey: You can’t be offended, you moron —
Lindsey: — because you’ve never been politically marginalized, unlike the majority of people in the world —
Steve: How can a majority be marginal?
Lindsey: — and, by the way, all women, everywhere, and it’s your classic white male myopia that you’re blind to that basic fact.
Lena: Why is a white woman like a tampon?
Lindsey: Why is what?
Lena: It’s a joke.
Well you’re being an idiot. And in case you hadn’t noticed, the rest of the world has begun a more sophisticated conversation about this topic than you apparently are qualified to participate in at this incredible moment in history. I mean, I used to date a black guy. So what? I mean, seriously. Steve. Wake up.
Lindsey: Well, I want to say this: I want to say I feel angry. And I’m basically kind of hurt by the implication that’s been made that, just because we want to live as your neighbors and raise a child alongside yours, that somehow, in the process of doing that, we’ve had our ethics called into question. Because that is hurtful.
But you know, I think things are about to change. I really do. I know it’s been a hard couple of years for all of us, I know they have been, but I really believe things are about to change for the better. I firmly believe that.