It’s hard to talk about Fairview. Not just because the play has already caused a sensation, unleashing a flood of critical acclaim when it opened at Soho Rep last year and winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Nor simply because revealing its ingenious structure feels like a kind of sin, so holy do its effects on the unsuspecting feel to me. It’s difficult because the play is shattering in a literal sense; anyone’s response to Fairview reveals something previously fathomless, like lifting a rock from damp ground and being forced to face whatever lies underneath.
In that spirit, I first saw the play last summer, after its rapturous reviews (from mostly white critics which I hadn’t yet read) and before its encore production, currently running at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn through July 28. I knew it was a knockout play about race that had sold out once word got around. (I had somehow managed a single ticket.) Walking to my seat, at least one thing about the experience felt wholly unsurprising: I was one among a small fraction of non-white faces in the audience.
Though I’m quite used to that, already I felt unnerved. If this was supposedly one of the most astonishing plays about race in years, who exactly was it meant for?
The first act signaled an answer in the form of an upper-middle class Black family, polished and sitcom-ready. (The play runs 110 minutes with no intermission, but is broken into three distinct parts.) Think Fresh Prince of Bel-Air meets Family Matters — they have plenty of means, and display social class and family values, too. A smartly dressed woman (Heather Alicia Sims) is peeling carrots, prepping for her unseen mother’s birthday dinner. Her husband (Charles Browning) catches her dancing to the stereo (Sly and the Family Stone, “It’s a Family Affair”) and slides up from behind to join her.
“You can’t just sneak up on people,” she protests with a sweet but genuine annoyance. “You don’t just watch a person, and they don’t know you’re there.” Subtle nods like this and the encasing frame around director Sarah Benson’s production (scenic design is by Mimi Lien) indicate a broader awareness of who is watching and who is being watched. A performance of high respectability radiates from the family, which comes to include a vivacious and accomplished teenage daughter (Mayaa Boateng) and an edgy, instigating aunt (Roslyn Ruff).
Given the makeup of the audience, I could guess who this performance of excellence was meant to appease. We’ve all seen it before: the veneer glinting from stories about racial minorities crafted for white consumption. Maybe I’m being paranoid, I thought. They seem like a real, loving family. I nearly reached the point of gaslighting myself. Relax. You’re always so sensitive. Not everything is About Race. Except, I thought this was? Hopefully more people of color will at least get to read about this play even if they can’t get a ticket.
These were the thoughts swimming in my head when I first experienced Fairview’s sharp turn. The voices of white spectators, whom I’d imagined this performance was directed toward, begin echoing through the dark, as the action of the previous scene replays silently in real time. They speak callously, foolishly, with the kind of myopia and privilege that many minorities — especially Black people — have been accustomed to hearing and ignoring or accommodating and educating for as long as any of us have been able to understand words.
I started sweating and my lungs felt shallow. I always kind of want to scream out in dark theatres, just to break the social contract, but this time I actually almost do. The voices crack jokes, argue inanely, ignorantly. The dialogue feels endless and careens off the rails, a man babbling with rage as the characters on stage continue their pantomime. I started to cry, quietly. I’ve never felt more alone while surrounded by people on every side, and not because I had come to the show by myself. Others in the audience were laughing, or still sitting quietly, exactly as they were meant to be doing. Why didn’t anyone else seem upset?
I was back to doubting my own response when I realized I had been lit like a fuse from the outset. The play’s scorching final act, which I won’t detail here, reversed my isolation to such an extreme that I felt more exposed than if I had, in fact, succumbed to a primal scream. I later understood why I had so much trouble keeping still and quiet — this isn’t just about a handful of made-up characters on stage, entertaining an audience one minute and forgotten the next. The question of whose stories get told, and for whose benefit and by whose rules, aren’t just about plays or fiction, but history and identity.
After the actors bowed, I rushed out to the street for air, breathing slow and deep. When I returned to the show this year, I brought a friend — and the foresight that Fairview would be watching us, too.
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photos by gerry goodstein