Cripple Creek tackles fair housing with ‘Clybourne Park’

Most theatrical performances inspire some sort of emotional reaction, but most times once the play is over the emotion fades into the darkness of the empty theater.

In the spring of 2006, Andrew Vaught and Andrew Kingsley founded Cripple Creek Theatre Company in an effort to compel audiences to use that emotion to exact social change.

“An emotional response to an experience can be a gateway to transformation,” Vaught said. “We make plays that make an audience laugh or cry, and we use those valuable tools to connect to our audience and catalyze reflection and conversation that lead to social and individual change of thought and habit.”

Originally from Covington, Vaught went to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. After graduating in 2005, he took a job with a Philadelphia-based theater company for a year. Though the year was tough, it was also enlightening.

“This job began 10 days before Katrina,” Vaught said. “Though the theater in Philadelphia was established and well-endowed, it lacked the sort of political or social relevance that was essential to the work I wanted to produce. As I watched the aftermath of Katrina unfold, I realized I needed to create my own company that addressed issues that were relevant to me and what I call home. When Kingsley and I decided to partner in this endeavor, we knew New Orleans was the only choice.”

Seven years later the company has performed over 20 theatrical works with large diverse casts in many areas in New Orleans, reflecting the cultural makeup of the city. Cripple Creek has grown from two to 10 cast members and increased its profile and reputation for producing challenging, exciting and cutting-edge work.

In keeping with their mission, it made perfect sense for Cripple Creek to add Bruce Norris’ Broadway hit “Clybourne Park” to their repertoire. “Clybourne Park” was written in response to Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” and has won numerous awards, including a Tony for Best Play and the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Set in Chicago in 1956 and 2006, “Clybourne Park” explores the issues of exclusionary housing practices, like blockbusting and gentrification, from 1956 to 2006.

“We chose ‘Clybourne Park’ because of its alignment with our mission and its inherent strength as an extremely entertaining piece of theatre,” Vaught said. “More importantly, it is a commentary on exclusionary housing practices, contemporary issues of gentrification, and race relations in America, which are issues that are relevant and extremely controversial to New Orleans.”

Although the play is set in Chicago, Vaught and director Francesca McKenzie want audiences to look at the play, draw parallels to the city of New Orleans and have productive dialogue to implement change in the city.

“‘Clybourne Park’ and the production elements that are supplementary to the show — our lobby installation about fair housing in New Orleans and the U.S., our staged reading of

‘Raisin in the Sun’ and our post-show Saturday Speaker Series — were created to facilitate an environment for dialogue and reflection to move toward change of habit or thought on a community and individual level,” Vaught said.

According to Vaught, the ultimate desire is to have audiences walk out of the Shadowbox and look around the St. Claude Street corner — blighted buildings, a Rally’s building for sale, the newly built Healing Center, the St. Roch Market under construction — and recognize how the issues addressed in “Clybourne Park” relate to New Orleans.

The desire for audiences to have those important conversations is not just lip service for the members of Cripple Creek. Members of the company understand that change truly begins with the conversations they are having with each other.

“In terms of what we want our audience to think about, it is rooted in what our company has reflected and discussed during this production,” McKenzie said. “We cannot provoke social action unless we, as a company and as individual artists, demand it from ourselves first.”

With “Clybourne Park” theatergoers will be treated to one of the best and most acclaimed pieces of theatre in this decade, but they will also have the opportunity to witness a socially relevant piece of art that can cause change within the city.

“‘Clybourne Park’ will provide a vehicle for dialogue about racism, access and affordability in the post-Katrina landscape of New Orleans,” Vaught said. “The impact of exclusionary housing policies in New Orleans is a massive shortage of affordable housing options for working- and middle-class families, and the ongoing displacement of much of New Orleans’ pre-Katrina population.”

New Orleans has experienced a post-Katrina population loss of more than 100,000 residents. The city is now more white, more male and home to fewer families with children.  Many people are still displaced and unable to return home. 

“This creates a lot of emotional and social turmoil that still needs an outlet for dialogue and intentional action toward a more equitable community,” Vaught said. “This play will facilitate important dialogue that will lead to change on an individual and social scale.”

Cripple Creek will present “Clybourne Park” on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from May 17-23 at The Shadowbox Theatre on St. Claude Avenue. Opening weekend tickets are $10, and all remaining performances are $15. Group rates are also available.

For more information on Cripple Creek Theatre Company, head to their website at www.cripplecreekplayers.org.