Notes on Theater – June 11, 2018
by Patrick A. Bradford
“Fairview” by Jackie Sibblies Drury
New York City, Off-Broadway, Soho Rep.
Through July 8, 2018
(c) Patrick A. Bradford
Near the end of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s astoundingly smart and riveting new play “Fairview,” now in previews at SoHo Rep., a young Black woman plaintively envisions a world where each person is given fair consideration for their life’s effort. The text echoes a critical theme, announced almost sixty years ago by the Black matriarch, Lena Younger, in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (1959), who admonished her daughter to consider the absolute value of a life – – “measure him right child, measure him right.” The themes of these two plays, one a modern classic and the other an instant contemporary one, enjoy certain thematic similarities. They both involve Black families and how their members are knowingly perceived by White America. And both deal with the routine anxiety fostered in Black people, ever worried about how racial stereotyping thwarts Black lives. Hansberry’s contribution was to show Black people truthfully, certainly a revelation to White audiences in the late 1950’s, people who knew almost nothing of the interior lives of Black folks. Almost six decades later, Drury’s revolutionary play says, ironically, that not much has changed. Black folks continue to be discounted, expressly for the benefit of White America, but there is Black power in understanding how one is unfairly viewed. Black knowledge of the thicket of anti-Black race discrimination is as old as W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folks” (1903) or Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” (1896). However, telling White folks about themselves is both novel, and a necessary trek on the road to full freedom for Black citizens. For the Black artist, this challenge is daunting. As Toni Morrison has stated, part of the new Black Arts & Civil Rights movements require Black artists to create wholly authentic works, art that is not compromised in any way by White America’s stereotypes – – “the White Gaze.” Ms. Drury’s “Fairview” fiercely stares down that ever-present, ever-oppressive Gaze. She makes it blink, then turn and run.
While the themes of “Raisin” and “Fairview” intersect, their forms could not be more different. And in the almost sixty years since Hansberry proved that a Black playwright could craft a “well made” Broadway drama, the explosion of dramatic form in Black playwrighting has given us the choreo poems of Ntozake Shange, the clever word-play of Suzan Lori-Parks, the fire-breathing texts of debbie tucker green, the documentary creations of Anna Deavere Smith, and the inner monologues of Dael Orlandersmith. And it is noteworthy that new work from the idiosyncratic, utterly personal vision of Adrienne Kennedy continues to be produced. Ms. Drury is the beneficiary of this rich history of Black female craftsmanship. And “Fairview” is an everlasting, essential tribute.
“Fairview” is a work in four scenes, rendered in 110 intermission-less minutes. In the first scene we meet the Frasier family, a middle class, Black coterie. We greet them in their well appointed home, decorated in off-white hues. (The pitch perfect set design is by Mimi Lien.) In short order we encounter Mother Beverly (a very funny Heather Alicia Simms), Father Dayton (the solid Charles Browning), Daughter Keisha (the talented MaYaa Boateng) and Aunt Jasmine (the always wonderful Roslyn Ruff). The first scene involves preparation for a birthday dinner in honor of the family matriarch who is resting upstairs. (Hint: This grandmother is nothing like Lena Younger!) Beverly seems unusually anxious that every detail of the dinner be perfect; and that her brother’s job not cause him to be late for the party. Her husband, Dayton, does his best to calm her down. Aunt Jasmine is comically critical of everything, including the fancy, discount-priced cheese. And Keisha, returning home from high school basketball practice, pleads for a gap year before college. The point of this scene is the ordinary. But it is played with a slightly heightened, situation comedy-like flair. This effect is underscored by the framed, proscenium set design – – as if watching a TV screen. I will add that this scene is extremely funny. Ms. Drury is setting up a knockout punch of the Ali-Frazier variety.
The second scene is one of the most brilliant I have ever witnessed (and heard) in over 40 years of theater-going. In scene two, the first scene is silently repeated by the actors on stage (in shadow-gray lighting finely designed by Amith Chandrashaker). As we watch the silent show, we hear White voices of American and European dissent discussing race matters. (The clear sound design is by Mikaal Sulaiman.) We hear these voices as if eavesdropping on a private conversation. They begin softly and grow louder and more raucous as their race debate progresses. At first their statements seem wholly unrelated to the action on the stage, until the dialogue makes clear that they have been watching the play with us. I will say no more, save listen carefully to this dialogue. It is exceedingly funny. And disquieting.
Scene three is the birthday party. When the grandmother appears – – played by a White actress – – we first laugh at the familial incongruity. But what “family” have we been watching in this Trumped up America? Then we realize that this person was one of the White voices we heard in the second scene. Now we know why Beverly was so concerned that every aspect of the dinner had to be perfect. The White Gaze. Her dinner would be judged within that Gaze, as are all aspects of Black life. Recent news articles confirm that “Fathering your toddler while Black,” “Waiting at Starbucks while Black,” “Driving your own car while Black,” “Moving into your new apartment while Black,” and “Sleeping in your college library while Black,” among other actions, are frowned upon in today’s America. This, as the decisions of White gazers are predetermined, and so all of Beverly Frasier’s work and planning will be for naught, no matter how beautifully rendered her dinner table. We know this from what we hear in Drury’s awesome second scene.
White American factions – -Trump, Clinton, Sanders, etc. – – have all already made up their minds, immovably so. The White grandmother’s comments are the most liberal, well-meaning of those heard in scene two. But her liberalism remains steeped in racist stereotypes, as evidenced by her scene three pseudo-Black speech (a parity of Lena Younger’s authentic talk of Black struggle.) The other White voices from scene two also appear as family members in scene three. And notwithstanding the actual middle class Black people we have met in scene one, the White voices of scene two appear as White characters in scene three and “act out” their warped and racist perceptions of Black people. This is modern day blackface without the pigment. While exceedingly funny, the idea that Beverly’s brother – – an attorney who works for a law firm – – could be perceived by any White observer as an urban thug, replete with sports jersey and large gold chain sharply makes the point. (As does Roseanne Barr’s recent comment about Valerie Jarrett.) No matter what Black folks accomplish, it will never be enough to escape that warped, White Gaze. (Or as Jay-Z has written: “still nigga.”) And again, Black folks, including Drury and Jay-Z, clearly understand how our humanity is distorted by life in White America. (I await a future production of “Fairview” – – and there will undoubtedly be many – – where the White voices and characters are played by Black actors in White face, underscoring the point that Black America knows full well that lies continue to be told about who we are.)
The final scene is the pay off. I will not provide details and spoil an exceedingly rich theatrical experience. For Black audience members it is an emotional coup de theater. For White audience members it may well be taken as an insult. However interpreted, it is unforgettable. “Fairview” is the best new play that can recall seeing since I encountered Terell Alvin McCraney’s “The Brothers Size.” I dare say that “Fairview” is an even more important play, though we are now talking minuscule gradations of excellence. And while “Fairview” is my first production of a play by Drury, I will do my best never to miss another.
“Fairview” is playing through July 8 at New York City’s Soho Rep., a small theater of 60 seats. For this reason, I urge you to get your tickets now. This production will surely sell out quickly, and likely become the most difficult theater ticket to get in New York City through its closing date. We can only hope that this landmark production is extended, or transfers to a larger venue.
Patrick A. Bradford is an African-American practicing attorney. He studied dramatic literature as a Harvard undergrad.