The stunning production of “Fairview,” Jackie Siblies Drury’s challenging play, is now being remounted with the same extraordinary cast and creative team at the Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn, a year after its brief run at the smaller Soho Rep, and two months after winning the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The new run offers theatergoers a second chance to see what the buzz was about. But, for better or for worse, this second run also comes with a new context.
“Fairview” is in three acts, each one cleverly investing the title of the play with a completely different meaning, and in the process blowing up the audience’s perceptions and increasing our discomfort.
In the first, Fairview sounds like the name of the suburb where the play takes place. As it begins, Beverly (Heather Alicia Simms) is peeling carrots over the dinner table in the living room, preparing for a birthday dinner for her mother. One by one the other characters enter – her loving and lovable husband Dayton (Charles Browning), who has to be prodded to bring the correct silverware; her visiting sister Jasmine (Roslyn Ruff), about whom Dayton says “That woman knows every thing about every body and never has one good thing to say about anybody”; Beverly’s bubbly teenage daughter Keisha (MaYaa Boateng), who chatters on about a teammate who is always late for practice, but then asks Jasmine a favor – to help her convince Beverly to allow her to take a “gap year” before college. Mentioned but not yet arriving at the party – Tyrone, Beverly’s busy if neglectful brother, who is a lawyer on the fast track to make partner, and Mama herself unseen upstairs. Keisha talks about her best friend Erika.
It feels like an affectionate, and inviting, and familiar, look at a comfortable black middle class family. It promises some laughs, some warmth, maybe some low-stakes intrigue that leads to a moment where a character says something wise or sentimental.
“I love these women,” Keisha says, in an aside to the audience. “Joy. And Dancing and Singing!”
But from the get-go, things also seem a little… off. There’s a bit too much dancing and singing, and even when Jasmine is not dancing, her gestures are self-consciously theatrical, almost regal. The music Beverly turns on has momentary blips and glitches. There is something too elegant about Mimi Lien’s set; the color scheme — off-white, decorated with an all-white abstract painting — starts to feel like a clue. Most telling of all, in retrospect, is the very first line of the play. Beverly says to Dayton: “What are you looking at?!”and then “You say hello, you don’t just watch a person.” Much later Keisha says to another character: “I can’t hear anything but you staring at me.”
Drury has said that “Fairview” grew out of her interest in exploring “surveillance.” By the end of the play, it seems clear the playwright has been examining what many have come to call the white gaze. The white gaze can be taken as literal in the theater, given the demographics of theatergoers. This was driven home by a recent essay in the Washington Post by Gbenga Akinnagbe, who portrays wrongly-accused black defendant Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird, who wrote about how taxing it has been to portray an oppressed black man in front of a mostly white audience eight times a week.
But in “Fairview,” Drury is making a larger point, delivered meta-theatrically, that black people always feel on stage, always being observed, judged, summed up.
This message helps make “Fairview” tricky to review.
In awarding “Fairview” the Pulitzer, the jury described the play as:
“A hard-hitting drama that examines race in a highly conceptual, layered structure, ultimately bringing audiences into the actors’ community to face deep-seated prejudices.”
Is it fair now in a review to reveal more of that “layered structure” than most reviewers did last year? The concept of a “spoiler” arguably has been rendered moot in a work that’s been labeled an exemplar of the age and thus considered a candidate for the canon.
For that matter, are there any great plays that hinge on surprise – that are “spoiled” if you know in advance what happens? Does “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” have less of an impact to those theatergoers who already know George and Martha’s secrets? Will “Fairview” feel weaker on a second viewing?
The theatergoers in Ancient Greece are said to have known the plots of all the great tragedies in advance; scholars maintain that this communal knowledge is much of what gave these plays their power.
There’s much talk these days that our culture has become atomized – that our digital lives are divided into niches, that there’s no longer any collective knowledge. But “Fairview” implicitly assumes a modern-day communal knowledge – the knowledge of family dynamics that comes from watching sitcoms. In “Fairview,” Drury is questioning the accuracy – and fairness — of that knowledge, in particular when it comes to black families.
For those of you who are planning to attend “Fairview”; feel I’ve told you enough so far to go on; and/or don’t want anything “spoiled”: You can stop reading this review at the end of this paragraph. But I will continue to describe the play (beneath the photographs), albeit mostly in outline, for two basic reasons. It will help explain how well crafted Drury’s writing is, how complicated the challenge mastered by the actors, and how both technically and aesthetically accomplished the work of the creative team — Sarah Benson’s direction, Raja Feather Kelly’s choreography, the quartet of designers’ intricately coordinated production. I also feel it only fair that a theatergoer be told what exactly is potentially uncomfortable in the show, so that they can make an informed decision about whether they want to attend.
At the end of the first act, in the suburb of Fairview, Beverly faints, the lighting changes – and the entire first act repeats, with two crucial differences. The first is that none of the characters from the first act say any of their dialogue; they silently and precisely repeat every movement they made. This showcases Kelly’s choreography, revealing just how inspired and meticulous it is. The choreographer has planted gestures in the voiced run-through of Act I that now have a different resonance in the second run-through. We are made to grasp the artificiality of performances we had taken to be largely realistic.
The second difference in Act II is that there is now a soundtrack – a voiceover discussion of race by four new characters, all of whom are white. And this is now the second meaning of fair view – fair as in fair-skinned; white. The first part of their conversation is each in turn discussing the question: “If you could choose to be any race at all, what race would you be?” What’s especially admirable in this cringe-worthy conversation is that it is not terribly exaggerated. Their commentary stays within the bounds of what you might actually overhear people, maybe slightly drunk, saying at a party. It reflects distinctly different attitudes towards race — blunt, ignorant, tortured, patronizing, or well-meaning and trying to be woke; from “You’d just want to be Black so you could say the N-word.” to “The person in my life who expressed love to me in a way that I could feel it, that was Mabel.” (her black nanny) – all problematic because the subjects of their conversation are treated like The Other.
Both the movement on stage and the voiceover commentary become increasingly overheated and surreal and more and more interconnected (kudos for the coordination both to Kelly and sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman.) And then, in Act III, the white characters appear on stage, taking the identity of the characters we were waiting for in Act I – Tyrone, Mama, Erika. Montana Blanco goes to town with their costumes, a pointed satire on white envy, appropriation and distortion of black culture. They are intruders and instigators, changing the narrative, imposing stereotypical behavior and situations on the black characters. One even breaks in on Keisha’s aside, a violation of standard theatrical practice.
It’s all too much for Keisha, who rebels, breaks the fourth wall, and talks in a long, impassioned monologue (beautifully delivered by MaYaa Boateng) about the need for white people “to make space for us,” for “my people of color…my colorful people.” She makes her point about the dominance of the white gaze not so much through her words, which are not especially memorable, as through one action, requiring audience participation. It is the third meaning of the title of the play – and it is itself a pun. She is asking for a fair view – fair as in just, view as in perspective. The last word in the piece is “fair.”
But she also means a literal view: In a variation of what Taylor Mac did at one point in his A 24 Decade History of Popular Music, Keisha/MaYaa Boateng asks, gently insists, that all the white people in the audience leave their seats and get up on the stage. They are exchanging places with the black characters/actors, who now take seats in the auditorium. Those theatergoers who don’t identify as white stay seated. Keisha/Boateng (for it’s not clear at this point whether it’s the character or the actress) sits in a row in the middle of the auditorium, with her back to the stage, facing the theatergoers who remain in their seats for her climactic address.
It’s proven an uncomfortable moment for many people, for a variety of reasons. “It’s curious to me that even a simple embodiment of a gesture toward dismantling white supremacy is so difficult for people to do,” Drury told American Theatre Magazine about this moment. There feels in her remark a lack of empathy towards theatergoers, who may be disabled, for example, or shy, or ambivalent or uncertain about their identity. And perhaps some resent being singled out for something beyond their control, and don’t feel they need the didactic lesson to understand that it’s wrong to do so.
It might be worth mentioning that the Pulitzer is awarded for a script, not a production; the five jurors, all of whom were white, might not have had to get out of their seats, because they might not have attended a performance. If you find my mention of the jurors’ race irrelevant and even in questionable taste, “Fairview” might not be for you.
TFANA at Polonsky Shakespeare Center
Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury; Choreography by Raja Feather Kelly; Directed by Sarah Benson.
Set design by Mimi Lien, costume design by Montana Blanco, lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman
Cast: MaYaa Boateng, Charles Browning, Hannah Cabell, Natalia Payne, Jed Resnick, Luke Robertson, Roslyn Ruff , Heather Alicia Simms
Running time: About two hours, with no intermission
Tickets: $55-$115. “New Deal” tickets for those ages 30 and under or full-time students of any age: $20
Fairview is on stage through July 28, 2019