Not only is Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Fairview something of a conundrum, it’s also difficult to review. Critics, quite understandably, have been asked to withhold any spoilers, so I can’t discuss its unique ending, which provides the play with its wow factor as well as its raison d’etre.
What I can tell you is that it starts simply enough. In fact, you could almost be forgiven for thinking the clock had been turned back to the 1980s and you were watching a live episode of, say, The Cosby Show.
It’s grandma’s birthday, and a well-to-do African American middle-class family is putting the final touches to the dinner party they’re throwing in her honor. Making sure that everything goes to plan is the somewhat over-anxious Beverly (Nicola Hughes), who, when the curtain rises, is peeling carrots while listening to the radio in her elegant, pastel-coloured lounge-cum-dining room (designed by Tom Scutt). There’s even a laugh track of sorts, supplied of course by the live audience.
Completing the family are Beverly’s genial hubby Dayton (Rhashan Stone), her aggressively assertive sister Jasmine (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) and her academically bright teenage daughter Keisha (Donna Banya).
Despite the congeniality of the setting, there’s definitely tension in the air. It starts with a subliminal glitch in the radio’s reception, continues with an edgy discussion of whether Keisha should take a gap year between school and college, and is exacerbated when grandma’s birthday cake catches alight.
Until this point, nothing we have seen indicates any kind of demarcation between a black family or a white family. As the playwright herself puts it in a program note, the milieu or “space” in which the play takes place is conventionally white, creating, “the sort of pressure that people of colour are under to be watched and looked at and judged through no fault of their own as they try to make their way in their lives. (This) is essentially what the play is about.”
The initial indication that racial divide is the optimum item on Sibblies Drury’s agenda comes in a stimulating dramatic construct in which the first scene is repeated gesture for gesture but with an accompanying audio soundtrack comprising a quartet of white characters discussing what race, if they hadn’t been born white, they would like to be.
Needless to say, as the play progresses, the formulaic sitcom conventions with which the evening begins morph into fashionable theatrical chaos redolent of such groundbreaking absurdists as Ionesco, Pirandello, Beckett and Adamov. And as the styles vary, so does your mood spectrum, ranging from an initial willing acceptance to outright irritation, and, finally, a climactic manipulation that some audiences will find deeply affecting, others offensive. Either way they will not be bored.
My own feeling is that had Fairview been written, say, 15 years ago, it might have had more impact. But as we approach 2020, there is more ethnic diversity, especially in the performing arts, than ever before. Our stages, on both sides of the Atlantic, are awash with black-themed musicals and plays, not to mention black re-workings of classics such as Chekhov’s Three Sisters and Death of a Salesman. Actors of colour regularly appear in roles originally written for whites; and quite rightly, both the contemporary cinema and television today offer many more opportunities for ethnic actors than ever before.
That said, Fairview, for its sheer originality, justifies being spoken of in the same breath as Brandon Jacob-Jenkinson’s An Octoroon and Lynn Nottage’s Sweat. It’s directed with razor-sharp acuity by Nadia Latif and performed with verve and vigour by its excellent cast.