Like many plays these days, Jackie Sibblies Drury's “Fairview,” which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, challenges us to confront racism, but it does so in surprising ways that are different from anything I've seen before.
The plot twists are difficult to describe without spoilers, and the Chicago premiere directed by Definition Theatre's artistic director Tyrone Phillips is puzzling in some respects, but overall, the production is worth seeing and should provoke interesting conversations, especially about white privilege and who gets to tell whose stories.
The opening leads us to believe we're in for a middle-class Black family dramedy, perhaps modeled on a 1970s television sitcom. Beverly (Kandice Robins), dressed in a demure skirt and cardigan, is sitting at the dining room table peeling carrots and bopping to the music on the radio. She's preparing a special birthday dinner for Grandma (her mother), and she's terribly nervous about everything being perfect. It doesn't help that her eager-to-please husband Dayton (David Goodloe) can't seem to follow her directions to the letter or to hear her shouting from the next room. He's also not too happy when he learns her sister Jasmine ( Martasia K. Jones) is coming to the party.
Then Jasmine sashays in with her tight leather pants, leopard-print top and penchant for one-line put downs of everything from cheap cheese to her sister's clothes. She's brought a bottle of rosé she says is French but insists that Dayton put in the freezer. She's brash and sassy, the complete opposite of Beverly. And when Beverly's daughter, Keisha (Jada Jackson), arrives, she naturally asks her aunt to get her mother to agree to her taking a gap year between high school and college.
The lights flicker a couple of times, the family dances around the table occasionally and Beverly becomes increasingly anxious, but otherwise the play seems more-or-less naturalistic. Except the acting is exaggerated, so that Beverly and Jasmine are on the edge of hysteria with the others not far behind.
Even sitcoms aren't this extreme, and I couldn't tell if Phillips' direction is deliberately pushing the limits to satirize the white view of Black families. The tone is confusing, too; it could have been familial and friendly but leans more into tension.
The situation is complicated by some technical incongruities; for example, when Beverly is supposed to be preparing root vegetables, she's just tearing up beet greens instead of peeling and chopping beets, potatoes, etc. And does the fact that Jasmine's allegedly French rosé has a twist cap reflect the character's ignorance or a directorial oversight? (French wines rarely have twist caps, not to mention that this wine is a California brand.)
Anyway, the first section peaks with Beverly fainting and the stage, which has audience seating on either side, going dark. When the lights come up again, two white characters — Jimbo (Max Stewart) and Suze (Barbara Figgins) — are off to the side talking, while the previous scene plays out again before them wordlessly.
Jimbo asks Suze if she could be a different race, what would it be, and their cringe-worthy discussion is soon joined by Mack (Collin Quinn Rice) and Bets (Carley Cornelius). The four of them ponder the question from almost every possible angle, sometimes humorously, sometimes offensively, always reflecting each one's prejudices.
Then Sibblies Drury turns the tables on us again — twice — for the final scene. It devolves into a chaotic birthday dinner with some unexpected guests, followed by Keisha breaking down the fourth wall. Deeply disturbed by what is going on around her — though it's not exactly clear what bothers her most — she invites all the white people in the audience to come up on stage and any Black people on stage to join their colleagues in the audience. Then she lectures us on our failures.
At the performance I attended, the audience was diverse, and some but not all of the white people did go up on stage. Those who didn't, when asked later, said there didn't seem to be enough room. I don't know if this was the truth, but I also wonder how effective putting the audience on the spot in this way is. Go see for yourself.
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