If someone were to ask me to describe the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury, I would start with Shattering. I would add Visceral, Iconoclastic, and Stinging.
The playwright has fashioned a story that reflects feelings and words that have gone unspoken. At least not in public and rarely onstage. Now they are. And they are sometimes shocking, muscular, and raw.
The words of Fairview begin as innocuous as a television situation comedy – in fact you get a sense of that world before the performance even begins at Woolly Mammoth. Classic TV theme songs from “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times” and “227” play pleasantly enough as the audience takes their seats. Pre-show lighting warms the pastel, welcoming middle-class home of an upwardly mobile, African-American family. (Remember the feeling you got when the Huxtables entered our living rooms during the heyday of “Must-See-TV” on Thursdays some years ago?)
But Sibblies Drury has much more in store for us than a sit-com story tied up neatly in 24 minutes. Hers is theatre that holds a mirror – make that a 1,000-watt halogen spotlight and X-ray machine – up to life. This mirror has teeth and claws and is poised to grab each member of the audience and shine the light directly in their face. As directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, the play does just that and much more, with an impeccable cast, and excellent design work by all collaborators working to mine the depths of Fairview.
It is important that you know, Fairview is a play about race. As one of the characters says, there are the “colorful people” – black, brown – and the others. White people. Those with the “fair view.” This is not a spoiler. You need to know at least that much going into this play. And then you need to allow the play to unfold piece by piece, moment to moment all the way until the last person is standing on stage. And that person could be you – lost in your thoughts, seeing this remarkable play from a perspective some of us do not get to experience.
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As figurative tour guides on this theatrical journey, the cast is remarkable. Nikki Crawford is the wife and mother Beverly, running the household and working very hard to host the perfect birthday party for her mother. Crawford’s role is that of family rock, organizer and ad hoc leader and Crawford has the charm and strength to pull off this central role. As her devoted, somewhat less-on-the-ball spouse, Samuel Ray Gates plays Dayton with a twinkle in his eye, much like we have experienced on black sit-coms over the years. As Beverly’s more outgoing, outspoken, and outrageous sister Jasmine, the excellent Shannon Dorsey’s performance recalls the Jackee Harry-type – quick with a quip and comic foil to her more down-to-earth sibling.
What African-American family with a beautifully appointed home would be complete without a precocious, athletic teenager looking towards a bright future after high school? Enter Keisha, fitting that bill perfectly in the hands of Chinna Palmer. Keisha’s role is the most difficult and momentous and Palmer effortlessly maneuvers her character’s journey and quietly commands the stage from her first entrance to the last moments of the play.
The playwright turns these domestic pleasantries into a hall of mirrors before allowing the entire world to screech to a halt once a white-washed, shadow play of racial arguments and invasive gazing crashes into the family’s tidy world.
Fairview closes October 6 2019. Details and tickets
The actors who invade the action and help stretch the boundaries of Fairview to a ‘Twilight Zone’–edge contain many familiar faces to Woolly Mammoth and DMV audiences. Woolly Mammoth company members Kimberly Gilbert and Cody Nickell begin the upending of the play as Suze and Jimbo, who we meet speculating on how they would be if they could live as another ethnicity. Jimbo dreams of a violent, drama-filled existence, while Suze fondly remembers being raised by a nanny named Mabel. These white voices are joined by Christopher Dinolfo as Mack – who wishes he could be a fabulous black person and Bet, a European with a plummy accent played with relish by Laura C. Harris who would like to be a dancing, jazz-singing black diva. All of these aspirations will filter out onto the stage in a phantasmagorical fashion that needs to be seen to be believed.
As Fairview takes a pleasant, family story about a middle class, African-American family and turns it and them on their heads, the audience is turned inside out, too. Bringing the mostly white audience into the play for the gripping coda is at least one of the points in this incendiary, revolutionary drama from one of the theatre’s exciting new voices.
Jackie Sibblies Drury who also penned such works as Marys Seacole, presented by Lincoln Center Theatre, and We Are Proud to Present: A Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South-West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, seen at Woolly Mammoth in the 2013-14 season.
Drury is among several playwrights who shake up our expectations and preconceptions about race. Jeremy O. Harris, with Slave Play; Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the writer of An Octoroon; Jordan E. Cooper, playwright of the recent Ain’t No Mo’; and others are thrusting ideas such as slavery, interracial sex, reparations, and white privilege into the spotlight. Two plays worthy of your consideration open in October: Keenan Scott II’s Thoughts of a Colored Man at Baltimore Center Stage, and Douglas Turner Ward’s Day of Absence at Theater Alliance.
In the program notes for Fairview, Woolly Mammoth associate director Joanna Lugo poses the question, “How is blackness, whether archetypal or cultural, defined, and who has the power to define it?” This question, and many others of race and Blackness do not have easy answers.
I am pretty sure Fairview does not answer as many questions as it poses. And that is fine with me. As long as I am now questioning my white gaze, my preconceptions, and my own prejudices. As long as I am giving others the space to think, and to be. And listen to those who have been trying to talk to me the whole time.
This play: you should see it. White person, black person. Any person. And listen. Now.
Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury . Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb . Featuring Nikki Crawford, Samuel Ray Gates, Shannon Dorsey, Chinna Palmer, Cody Nickell, Kimberly Gilbert, Christopher Dinolfo, and Laura C. Harris . Choreographer: Asleigh King . Set Design by Misha Kachman . Costume design by Ivania Stack . Lighting design by Colin K. Bills . Sound design by Roc Lee . Stage manager Rachael Danielle Albert . Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.
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