DETROIT, MI–Fairview, now playing at The Detroit Repertory Theatre, is designed to make the majority of theatre patrons today uncomfortable. And it succeeds. The show plays through July 31.
Not every theatre goer wants this experience. After all, there seems to be a galaxy of plays about singing nuns and golfers to soothe the suburban inflation blues. But really good theatre makes you think doubt your perceptions, not just affirm them and stroke your temples with sitcom laugh-track comedy.
Jackie Sibblies Drury, who won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Drama for Fairview, sets out to smash the cultural gap between African-Americans and whites with a literary huge wooden mallet the way such a mallet might be employed to smash a paper mache coffee table. And beware: you will be toyed with and manipulated as the audience for this play.
The play starts out innocently enough with Beverly Fraser (Lynneisha A. Ray) anxiously preparing for a birthday dinner for her Mother. She is a bundle of nerves, comically obsessing over whether her husband, Dayton (Jonathon Jones), has purchased the root vegetables she asked for. Beverly’s sister Jasmine (Janai Lashon) arrives full of drama and affected Queen-ish behavior. And teenager Keisha (Tamara PiLar) seems to be bouncing off the walls full of teen energy that has been fueled by Red Bull or black coffee. The Frasers are Black. And that really matters in this play.
This scene and unfolding story sounds, and seemed, like a bit of a yawner…for a bit of time. And that is clearly what Drury had in mind.
So as not to create a spoiler, we won’t delve anymore into the story and action, which goes from being that ride for kids with the little planes that go round and round to a roller coaster in just a few minutes.
What we will say is that the structure of the play and what Drury does with four white characters who enter the story is that wooden mallet we were talking about.
The form Ms. Drury has adopted for this play hearkens to plays written by “absurdist” playwrights, and is a bit reminiscent of some of Edward Albee’s early work. Still, Drury is an original, showing perhaps some inspiration from those genres without copying.
When the white people (Stephen Blackwell, Annabelle Young, Kylie Ann Stone, Kevin T. Keller) enter the story and start talking, the squirm in one’s seat begins slowly and then builds to a “Is there an intermission?” question inside one’s own head. Haven’t we all sat down next to strangers having a truly absurd conversation about what they think they are brilliant about? And cringed?
At bottom, Fairview, directed ably by Will Bryson, is a play about how white people view Black people for the most part, or at least the Black perception of how most white people view them. It is also thought provoking about what and why white people think of Black culture and how difficult it can be, no matter how woke one thinks they are, to fully take-in and embrace a story about Black people written by Black people. It is also a window through which white audiences, and Black audiences, might examine their attachments to stereotypes.
There is a blooming of work by black playwrights that preceded the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. But Floyd’s murder by a police officer galvanized much of the world around racial injustice in a way we have not seen since the late 1960s.
There is hardly a theatre amongst us not looking for or developing work by playwrights of color featuring characters of color. And that’s a good thing since most theatres not identified as specifically developing works for Black and LatinX audiences are run by whites cultivating shows for largely white audiences.
In a way, Fairview is almost a play within a play designed to show patrons, as well as directors and producer, both the reality, absurdity and division of white theatre and Black theatre.
It can be argued that hitting one on the head with a big wooden mallet may not be the best way to make a point with human beings. But as we live in a country governed by minority power that just took away basic human rights from women, and will try to do the same to LGBTQ citizens, and has been passing laws designed to limit voting opportunities to urban minority voters, maybe a blow to the head with a wooden mallet is a solution worth considering to get people to think outside their stereotypes.