Annie Parisse Talks “Clybourne Park”

The former "Law & Order" star helps uncover the “ugly” in our everyday discussions of race

"Clybourne Park"
Nathan Johnson Photography

In “Clybourne Park,” a bowlful (a big bowl) of sugar helps the medicine go down. By offending with sharp humor and in bountiful doses, playwright Bruce Norris finds a deft way to expose the eggshell-walking we do when talking about race -- we are informed, to some discomfort, that black people don’t ski. Later, we learn what happens when a black man and a white man share a prison cell.

Norris’ play, now nominated for four Tonys, picks up where Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” left off, with the Younger family preparing a move to a fictional, all-white community in Chicago. The Youngers are never seen, but some neighbors have gotten wind that a departing family has sold their home to a black couple, and they’re none too thrilled. In Act Two, set 50 years later, members of the now-gentrifying black community are considering the sale of the same property, this time to a white couple. 

The same seven actors play different characters in each act. The Pulitzer-winning comedy runs through July 8 at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

Annie Parisse (“Law & Order”) is at the forefront of the action in Act Two, as eager-to-please yoga-mom Lindsey, one-half of the white couple trying to convince her contemporaries that she’ll be a respectful landowner. The actress, known for her role as ADA Alexandra Borgia on “Law & Order,” spoke with WNBC by phone from her East Village apartment.

NBC4NY: You lived in Alaska until you were 11, then spent your teen years in Seattle. What was your experience with race growing up?

PARISSE: My dad happened to work with a lot of native Alaskans -- Eskimos. In elementary school we’d sometimes have members of the Inuit tribe come in, and I ate whale blubber. ... The part of Seattle I was in was a more p.c. place than New York City. I didn’t hear racial slurs until after I moved to New York, and I found it shocking. But I’m also aware that the Pacific Northwest is a pretty white area, and I think the less diverse an area is, the less you encounter tension.

NBC4NY: You’ve been associated with “Clybourne Park” for three years, and it’s a mixed-race cast. Is your relationship any different with the two African-American actors now than when you first met?

PARISSE: Crystal (Crystal A. Dickinson, who plays maid Francine in Act One and an urban gatekeeper in Act Two) said an amazing thing when a similar question came up. She said, “We get paid to go in there in a rehearsal and be offended by these things, and be hurt by them. But another part of our job is to be able to leave that on the stage.” Bruce does a magical thing with this play: he lets the conversation go past the point where people are offended. I think the feelings are real on stage, the feelings of being insulted. But I just know that we come backstage and we’re not bringing it out to dinner.

NBC4NY: In Act Two, you’re meeting with Crystal again, this time she’s part of the neighborhood association. You try to show her Lindsey is open-minded, so you say: “Half of my friends are black.” 

PARISSE: Reading a play, you view yourself as part of a whole. You see where the whole thing is going, and so you’re willing to go to the very ugly place that your heart may go in order to serve the whole. With a line like that, you cringe the first time you read it: “This woman!” But at the same time, I’ve heard people say those things -- perfectly nice people, with perfectly good intentions who do not consider themselves to be racist or to have a mixed-up point of view on issues of racism. Good intentions are often expressed poorly.

NBC4NY: So, underneath her progressiveness, is Lindsay racist?

PARISSE: I think Lindsay would say absolutely not, and I think she’d believe it wholeheartedly. Every person is ultimately a member of a group, and every person -- when their back is to the wall -- is self-interested. I think that’s what Bruce is asking us to see, but he’s doing it in such a funny way that it enables us to hear it a little bit more.

NBC4NY: Broadway audiences skew white. How would you characterize the breakdown of the crowds at “Clybourne Park”?

PARISSE: Very mixed. Much moreso than I’m used to seeing.

NBC4NY: To go off subject, I recently caught a rerun of your ignominious departure from “Law & Order” -- Sam Waterston discovering your beaten body in the trunk of a car. 

PARISSE: That was harsh. When I asked to leave the show, the producers were unbelievably gracious about releasing me from my contract. They said: “We’ve always wanted to murder one of our characters, and we may take this opportunity to do it.” I remember, on the day they kidnapped me from my apartment, they did such an amazing job with the effects, and of course, I thought it was hilarious when they were covering me in bruises. I said: “Take a picture.” So they snapped a picture and gave it to me. Once I saw it, I thought: “Oh. That’s awful.”

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