by Carol Rocamora
Watch out, theatre world! A dangerous new play is on the loose. It will sneak up behind you, grab you by the throat, and won’t let go. This is a theatrical experience that takes no prisoners – so be warned.
Fairview, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s explosive new work, begins with the promise of a pleasant family sitcom. The scene is an attractive home, where Beverly (Heather Alicia Simms) is preparing a dinner party to celebrate her mother’s birthday. It’s a stock situation, featuring a busy hostess, a helpful husband, a lively teenage daughter, and a meddling sister, who interact while Beverly is trying to set the table. They’re all charming and delightful as they chatter and prepare and tease and dance, and it’s amusing and enjoyable to watch. After all, “it’s a family affair” (according to the song to which they are dancing), and we can all relate to that. Oh – did I mention that the family is African-American? (Why should I, right?) It’s the kind of family scene you see on TV sitcoms every evening.
So far, so good, so safe. Ah, if only it would end there. No chance.
After 30-some minutes of family banter, the scene suddenly stops, and repeats, à la Ionesco. Something’s up. This time, the actors aren’t speaking aloud – they’re lip-synching their lines. Instead, what we’re hearing, over a loud speaker, are three strange, unidentified voices (one man, two women – one with an exotic accent). Who are these unseen people, and what in the world are they talking about? Apparently, they’re observing the scene along with us and commenting on it. “If you could choose to be any race you want, what would you choose?” one voice asks abruptly. This provocative question initiates a 30-minute discussion amongst the three voices while the scene replays itself in pantomime. What is happening?
Soon it dawns on you what the playwright may intend these insidious voices to represent: namely, the thoughts inside your own head as you are watching this play – that is, if you are white. It’s a creepy kind of meta-theatrical feeling, producing an escalating anxiety that turns into a full-force panic attack in the audience.
For suddenly, without warning, the play drives right off a cliff into a free fall of the kind you’ve rarely experienced in the theatre. Realism morphs into absurdism – and far, far beyond. We’re in unchartered territory, guided by a playwright who dares to break theatrical conventions and norms with no apology.
To reveal what happens in the shocking second half of this disturbing play would be an unforgiveable spoiler. This is a play that must – I repeat, must – be experienced, if you want to understand what this dramatist is writing about: namely, race, identity, and stereotyping.
Ms. Drury uses radical methods to grab and hold onto our attention, and her director, Sarah Benson, does a dazzling job of delivering the play’s theatrical intentions. The ensemble is superb, featuring Heather Alicia Simms as the anxious hostess Beverly, Charles Browning as the obliging husband Dayton, and April Matthis as the feisty sister Jasmine. As Keisha, Beverly’s teenage daughter, Mayaa Boateng delivers a deeply compelling monologue on race and identity that (I imagine) comes straight from the author’s soul. The excellent choreography is by Raja Feather Kelly. Mimi Lien’s sly, sleek set provides a framework for the theatrical mayhem that unfolds.
I emerged from this traumatic theatrical experience feeling chastened, changed – and at the same time filled with appreciation for Ms. Drury and Benson’s work. Rarely does a contemporary play challenge an audience like this one, and ask – no, demand – that we pay attention. “We’re obsessed with race,” says one of those insidious voices over the loudspeaker. Fairview breaks new ground on this urgent topic in a momentous and unforgettable way. It’s a play for our times that must be seen.
Photos: Julieta Cervantes
Fairview, by Jackie Sibblies Drury, directed by Sarah Benson, at Soho Rep until August 12.