Thrown off-guard, unsettled, and exhilarated by Fairview
Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, which won the 2019 Pulitzer is an exercise in setting up expectations, subverting those expectations, and then completely throwing them out the window. Woolly Mammoth’s production, which runs through October 6, is directed by Stevie Walker-Webb. Fairview keeps its audience on its toes. This is a play about race and racism in America, specifically the way that white people view and think about black people: how dehumanizing and othering a person—based on her skin color—can be a violent act. As the show goes on, the style and production become increasingly in-your-face and then it literally invites audience participation. Fairview made me think about my role in our too-often-racist society. As a white person, am I complicit? What could I be doing differently? What preconceptions about race am I bringing to this show (and to my everyday life)?
It starts out as a comedy, reminiscent of ‘90s sitcoms. We meet the Frasiers, an upper-middle class family preparing for a big family dinner: Beverly, her husband Dayton, their teenage daughter Keisha, and Beverly’s sister Jasmine. This is a black family, but it’s notable that they don’t bring up the subject of race in their conversations with each other. Race only comes up when others—a group of mysterious white spectators we meet later in the play—are talking about the Frasiers. And then it comes up a lot. I think the play is making a statement here: white people, who don’t know them personally, are defining this family primarily through their skin color, making assumptions and trying to fit them into racial stereotypes. But to each other they are, of course, individuals. They’re human to each other, but not to everybody. The set design further emphasizes that this is an ordinary family. There’s nothing big and flashy: what we see onstage is an ordinary, unassuming house where ordinary people live.
Woolly Mammoth’s cast is strong all around, but the youngest member Chinna Palmer, who plays Keisha, is a standout, moving fluidly from goofy teenage antics to a passionate, yearning monologue about the pressures she feels to succeed and her longing to define herself. Palmer does a lot of heavy lifting, as her character seems to be the one telling this story, and she does it effortlessly. Nikki Crawford gives Beverly a tightly-wound tension that makes her feel so real, I really wanted to just give her a hug. And Shannon Dorsey is hilarious as the larger than life Jasmine.
As the Frasiers get closer to dinner, the play begins to feel less funny, the family’s problems seem more serious, and the genre shifts from comedy to drama. The stakes are now higher. In the audience, I noticed a subtle shift. When before the air was filled with laughter, now fewer people were laughing. The play makes you question your own laughter. What is the line that we draw in the sand between what’s funny and what’s not? Because if we’re laughing at characters, we’re probably not having empathy and compassion for them.
This line in the sand gets even more fraught when we are introduced to our second group of characters, mysterious spectators who are watching the family’s action unfold. It’s never clear how and why these people are watching the Frasiers. We can’t see the spectactors: we only hear their voices as we continue to watch the Frasiers on stage. What is clear is that these spectators are both white and super racist (though they don’t think they’re racist and they do think they’re funny). In fact, their conversation is dominated by the subject of race and they seem unable to take about people of color without using stereotypes. The talk gets increasingly insensitive, dehumanizing, and mean.
As the spectators talk, the family’s story continues to unfold on stage, but now the Frasiers are silent, as if their voices have been taken from them. We can see that they’re talking, because the actors are mouthing their lines, but we can’t hear them. All we can hear are these offensive statements, sometimes directly about the Frasiers, sometimes more generally about people of color. Making the point that people of color are seen and scrutinized by outsiders—but too often not heard. On stage, the people of color have literally lost their voices. The choreography is brilliant—at times the audio and visual line up so that the movement of the bodies on stage is emphasized, punctuated, or shown in sharp relief to the bodiless voices off stage. I was really impressed with the actors’ ability to work in rhythm to this voiceover, and also to play the scenes fluidly and flawlessly, never getting distracted by this bodiless voice, always connecting with their scene partners on stage and never with the voiceover (which their characters can’t hear).
Fairview makes brilliant use of surprises to disarm the audience, so I don’t want to give everything away. But I will tell you that when these two groups come together, the behavior of the whites towards the blacks is really disturbing. It’s intrusive, out of control, and violent in an unconventional way. The mishmash of genres seemed to be confusing for the audience: were we watching a farce or a tragedy? Was this something to laugh at, to enjoy? Some people were laughing when I was sitting there horrified. I doubt those particular people were laughing because they’re racist (though who knows). Like I said, the play throws you off balance. I think Drury wanted some people to be laughing, was counting on that. Because the audience reaction makes a statement. Look at these people, so dehumanized by other characters that you, momentarily, forget they are people too. The play even breaks the fourth wall, when one character directly addresses the audience and urges the audience to participate in the drama. When the play is over, we’re left with a lot of questions about ourselves. Why do we allow racial violence and racist attitudes to persist? In our everyday lives, what are we not taking seriously? And how does the way that white people think and talk about black people create ugly, even violent behavior? How can we make spaces like theatres, traditionally filled with white people, open and inviting to people of color? How can we make room at the table?
Fairview is playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre from September 9 – October 6, 2019.
Run time: 100 minutes with no intermission
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is located in the Penn Quarter neighborhood of Washington, DC at 641 D Street NW. You can purchase tickets online or by calling (202) 393-3939.
Norah Vawter joins DCTrending as editor of the Local Authors section. She earned her M.F.A. in creative writing from George Mason University. She has published articles, op-eds, and essays on parenting, politics, and lifestyle topics in The Washington Post, OtherWords, Posh Seven, Scary Mommy, JustBE Parenting, among others.