Fairview, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s brilliant new play, excellently directed by Sarah Benson, illustrates the power of theater to make an audience think, even squirm, during the performance, while its deep impression lingers on afterward.
Developed at the Rep’s Ground Floor: Berkeley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work, with New York’s Soho Rep, Fairview is an enlightening play about race, specifically, about how white people envision black lives and the pressure and emotional cost such wrong-headed and racist observations cause blacks. And what better way is there to imprint this circumstance in our minds, than to show it on stage in its most inflated and unappealing form.
A one-act play divided into four distinct scenes, Fairview‘s first scene is in the beige living room of the wholesome middle-class black Frasier family, where anxious well-coifed wife Beverly (genuine Natalie Venetia Belcon) is preparing a special birthday dinner for her unseen demanding mother, who waits upstairs. Although she is cajoled by her playful husband Dayton (fine Charles Browning), the early arrival of her critical, sassy sister Jasmine (terrific Chantal Jean-Pierre) makes Beverly even more uncomfortable, as does the fact that her brother, lawyer Tyrone, is going to be late. Ebullient daughter Keisha (exceptional Monique Robinson) arrives home from b-ball practice, begging to take a gap year before starting college, much to her mother’s displeasure.
The scene, although quite realistic, bears a slight resemblance to one of the ’80s and ’90s TV sitcoms about black families developed by white writers. One could almost imagine the laugh tracks following the many jokes, as family members’ personalities are fleshed out. There are hints that all is not as it seems, however. Different versions of the song Family Affair waft in and out as if on a whim, an invisible mirror creates the fourth wall of the stage, and Keisha speaks to the mirror in an unexpectedly troubled way.
An exceptionally ingenious scene two begins as every detail of the stage set is returned to its place at the start of scene one, and the stage lights are dimmed. As we wonder whatever is going on, the actors re-do the first scene in exact pantomime, down to each gesture (a great feat) and we hear four disembodied white American and European voices discussing race. “… like if you could choose to be any race you want, any race at all … what race would you be?” The discussion takes on greater racial animus and grows more disturbing as it appears that the four are commenting on the play.
If you prefer not to read what might be considered a spoiler, stop reading here and skip down to the final two paragraphs.
In the third scene, the stage lighting returns, and we are back in the Fraziers’ living room. All of a sudden, the room becomes populated with white people. The demanding mother is white, brother Tyrone, the lawyer, is white, but he is dressed in a clichéd hip-hop, gold necklaced get-up. As we listen to the new family members, we realize that the disembodied white voices we previously heard have now joined the family, bringing their racist ideas with them, which they play out through their new characters. And the subject matter also changes, from gap-year to unwanted pregnancy and drug use. It’s the life of the Fraziers as seen through a racist lens.
The fourth scene is the most dramatic, as Keisha ventures into the audience and delivers a heartfelt monologue about wanting to be treated justly by whites and given a fair or unbiased view (now we fully understand the title). This speech was given at the back of the theater and, since I was one of many people standing on stage (as instructed), it was difficult to hear every word. But the tone and message were unmistakably painful and persuasive. Of course, there are no easy solutions given, and the audience leaves the theater.
Jackie Sibblies Drury (Social Creatures, We Are Proud to Present …) is a fabulous talent. She joins other new black playwrights like Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s, whose An Octoroon astounded audiences at Berkeley Rep last summer. It was also first directed by Sarah Benson at Soho Rep. Cal Shakes’ Black Odyssey by Marcus Gardley joins this important wave of authors with talent and insight, who can remind us that theater is not only fun and games. Plays like Fairview have the power to open our minds, to persuade us to give each other a fair view. Don’t miss it.
All performances of Fairview will have a post-show discussion with Berkeley Rep staff, docents and artists. Fairview is playing at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre through Nov. 4. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.