About 15 or 20 minutes into Woolly Mammoth’s new production of Fairview, going on now until October 6, my theatre companion leaned over to me and asked, “What is this play about?”
He was being facetious, or at least a little. Thus far in, Fairview was, rather simply, about an African-American family preparing for Grandma’s 70th birthday, with plenty of harried food prep, wine-drinking, and other tense but generally genial bits of business. It was obvious, however, that plenty of other shoes were left to drop.
After the show was over, he was willing to concede that Fairview had, in the end, been about something, though he struggled to articulate what.
Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury and directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, Fairview, the 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, is an aggressive deconstruction — a multi-front assault, really — on the theatrical presentation of black Americans’ stories: who gets to tell them, who gets to watch, whose opinions on them really matter. It asks a lot of its audience. There will be some hugely offensive racial stereotypes played by white people — and making those even more squirm-inducing, because of the reality of the play, the black cast members have to smile and nod along. There will be a screaming showdown over who gets to tug the story in which melodramatic direction. There will be a food fight.
Nikki Crawford stars as Beverly, juggling her hats as wife, daughter, sister, and mother while trying to make sure everything is perfect for the birthday celebration for her mom, who is apparently quite easy to displease. Her husband Dayton (Samuel Ray Gates) and sister Jasmine (Shannon Dorsey) provide intermittent help while poking fun from the sidelines, and teenage Keisha (Chinna Palmer) has some secrets to keep hidden while getting ready. Keisha is also the only one who senses that perhaps her world is not all that it seems, that there may be some alien author out there who thinks they’ve created her — more, that they feel they are in some way entitled to her. (Sidenote: In a show that repeatedly splits from real life, the least believable part might be a 2019 teenager whose friends still call on the landline.)
I won’t spoil too many of Fairview’s “twists,” except to say that several of them feel more like digressions. And to warn you that we spend a good half an hour listening to white people (dripping with privilege) discuss which race they would like to be, if they could choose. That part’s a slog. But really, any play that dedicates north of five minutes to discussion of the 2005 film Hostel, a torture porn piece of shit, has room for some cuts.
These white interlopers (colonizers?) aren’t content just to watch. Oops! Nearly gave away more of the game than I meant to. But is it a game? Certainly doesn’t seem too much fun by the end. It’d be a cop-out to say that, as a white theatregoer, the answer to that question isn’t really “for” me; besides, I saw lots of consternation and confusion on the faces of black audience members, too.
Woolly loves a good racial examination/indictment, be it Octoroon or last year’s Underground Railroad Game. But Fairview might just ask more than it gives back.