The title of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s latest play, with its vague suggestion of some placid, nondescript suburb, is a bit of a misdirect.
Fairview is another interrogation of white supremacy from Drury, a Brown University-educated woman of color whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica. More specifically, the play considers The White Gaze. It’d be a tough subject in any medium, but nowhere more than in the theater, where Drury does not merely understand but relies on the fact her audiences are predominantly white. “This play couldn’t happen for an audience that was entirely people of color,” the playwright told Vogue three months ago, after Fairview was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. “It needs to have white people to function. So even this play, that is trying to decenter whiteness, actually centers whiteness in and of itself.”
Fairview is an escalating series of challenges to centuries of theatrical and racial orthodoxy in America that days later are still echoing through my mind loudly enough that it almost doesn’t matter if they all cohere, or that I’m still confounded by one element of the show’s otherwise clear and powerful use of double-casting. (The casting is prescribed in Drury’s published script; it’s not new to this production.)
The play is formally inventive enough that it would be largely review-proof even if the author of this particular review did not happen to be a cisgender straight white male, the beneficiary of societal advantages both seen and unseen. I think about this perceived power imbalance every time I write about a piece of art created by a woman of color; the rumination gets especially thorny when that imbalance is the very subject of the art. Still worse, I’m a privileged white clown who detested Drury’s previous play at Woolly Mammoth, 2014’s We Are Proud to Present …, finding it dishonest, pompous, and self-aggrandizing as perhaps only the product of an Ivy League MFA program could be.
I don’t mean it as faint praise when I say that Fairview is an infinitely shrewder, more troubling, more genuinely provocative, and more rewarding experience. Which is not to say it’s fun.
Honoring the formal innovation Drury has come up with means allowing you to discover it for yourself, so I’m going to be a bit coy: The first act follows a harried but pleasant afternoon in the household of the Fraziers, a loving and seemingly prosperous black family. Beverly (Nikki Crawford) and her husband, Dayton (Samuel Ray Gates), flirt while preparing a birthday dinner for Beverly’s mother. Beverly’s unmarried sister Jasmine (Shannon Dorsey) arrives and does her best to prod her big sis into an argument. Beverly’s daughter, high-achieving high schooler Keisha (Chinna Palmer) arrives, sweaty from sports practice, complaining about the extra laps her team had to run. Eventually, the entire family is moved to dance.
And then we see all of this play out again, minus the Frazier family’s dialogue. Instead we hear four voices—we can’t see who is speaking, but this goes on long enough for us to form a picture of each character—maunder over which race they would choose to be if they were not white. Ohhhhh, the (mostly white) audience gasps at regular intervals. The third act gives us the taboo spectacle of white actors emulating the speech patterns and body language of black people, while the Fraziers’ idyllic life is rocked by an absurdist sequence of tragedies that seem utterly incongruent with everything we’ve learned about them. All of which is but prologue to a irreducible climactic gambit that I’m not going to touch.
Drury’s grand design is so schematic that the actors are something like chess pieces. That makes citing individual performances more difficult than it would be in a more conventional play, but there are no weak links in the cast. Woolly company members Kimberly Gilbert and Cody Nickell are in the fraught position of being white artists called upon to perform “blackness” in a way that can’t not read as caricatured and reductive—it’s okay if a highly decorated black playwright tells you to do it, I guess—so points for courage. But the most arresting work comes from recent Howard University graduate Palmer as Keisha, who may spend the rest of what I hope is a long and rewarding career seeking another piece of material that allows her to appeal to a large roomful of strangers as indelibly as she does in Fairview’s final moments.
To Oct. 6 at 641 D St. NW. $20–$97. (202) 393-3939. woollymammoth.net.