I recently caught an afternoon matinee of Speakeasy Stage’s production of Fairview, one of the oddest, yet unsettling, pieces of theater I’ve seen in some time.

The longish one act divides into three discrete segments. The first half hour or so depicts a middle-class Black family: mother, father, daughter, and snippy aunt, preparing for an elaborate birthday celebration for the family matriarch (who is ostensibly upstairs getting dressed). Mom Beverly worries about the minutiae of the event. Dad Dayton teases and caresses her devotedly despite—or perhaps because of—her anxiety. Aunt Jasmine is a flip counter to her uptight sister. While daughter Keisha is an exemplar of potential. All sunny, Cosby-show stuff with upbeat music, line dancing, witty dialogue, and terrific bits about setting place ware for six. A generation ago, as written by Neil Simon, it might have barreled along to a juicy Broadway run and become a major motion picture.

I knew this 1980’s revery could not last, not in a Pulitzer Prize winning play written by a Black female in 2019. I’d also read the program in advance, and noted only four actors in the cast. Therefore, I deduced the grandmother would never show, nor the attorney brother, supposedly delayed due to flight cancellations.

The lightheartedness continues until the mom, overwhelmed by her efforts, faints.

A quartet of unseen voices flows into the theater, speaking in podcast language and postulating, “If you could choose to be any race what race would you choose?” Meanwhile the four actors onstage recreate the entire play thus far, in mime. If you are me, trying to discern the parallels and dissonances between the voice over with the movement on stage while also trying to recall the original dialogue that accompanied the action, this portion of the play presents a fascinating brain puzzle. If you are one of the twenty or so high school students on a class trip, seated in the rows in front of me, it’s boring. They totally lost interest, chatting and phone-checking throughout this entire section.

The disembodied voices express outrage at the question of being able to choose their race, until they capitulate to the theoretical and proceed to hypothesize. A male chooses to be Asian; another wants to be Latinx. A female with a French accent would like to be a Slav, which triggers banter about whether that’s actually a different race. The most resistant voice, ultimately chooses to be African-American.

I figure when the stage actors get to the point of the mom fainting, dialogue will resume. Wrong. Instead the four voices start commenting on the characters and action, while the actors themselves remain mute. Strange figures peer into the windows, around doors. White folk, in odd dress. Suddenly grandmother arrives, decked out like a shabby Queen of Sheba. She is clearly white, and clearly bizarre. Is she the voice that said she would choose to be an African-American? The brother arrives, also white, decked out in unlawyerly biker garb. Another grandmother arrives, in flowing caftan like a real Queen of Sheba. Finally, the daughter’s friend Erica shows up, though ‘she’ is an adult male in teen drag.

Chaos ensues. I can’t follow what’s happening and don’t really care, though at least the kids in front to of me stop chatting. Suddenly everyone freezes and Keisha (played by the amazing Victoria Omoregie, who has earned an Elliot Norton Award nomination for her work) delivers a potent monologue about being seen. She challenges us. “What can you do to make space for someone else, for a minute.” Then she invites audience members who identify as white to come up onstage. To see the world from their viewpoint, and in exchange free up seats for others.

I am confused, having never considered the juxtaposition of actor and audience member as dynamics of oppression. But I give over the idea: audience and actors are the two groups that playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury has at her ready.

At the end of the play, the stage is crowded with white folk; the four principal Black actors retreat, the lights come up, and everyone’s a bit awkward. I am disturbed, which is of course the point, and also enamored by the play’s title. Fairview began as a likely title of a soap-opera-like confection, and ended up a plea: to give each other a fair view.

Pedaling home, adrenaline-fueled, I kept trying to make sense of the play’s discordant pieces. To no avail. The concept is grand. The execution a bit clumsy. But ultimately, I came away wondering why, in an attempt to give everyone a ‘fair view’ the playwright took something away from everyone.

There are two consistent ways in which actors receive recognition and affirmation. By having their names and bios listed in the program, and by accepting the applause of the audience at play’s end. Fairview robs four peculiar white actors of any Playbill notice – something I’d never encountered before. Simultaneously, it robs four extraordinary Black actors from receiving they applause they so richly deserve.

Isn’t there some way that we can see each other—fairly—without taking away welcome affirmations? Can’t we both see each other fair, and lift each other up?


About paulefallon

Greetings reader. I am a writer, architect, cyclist and father from Cambridge, MA. My primary blog, theawkwardpose.com is an archive of all my published writing. The title refers to a sequence of three yoga positions that increase focus and build strength by shifting the body’s center of gravity. The objective is balance without stability. My writing addresses opposing tension in our world, and my attempt to find balance through understanding that opposition. During 2015-2106 I am cycling through all 48 mainland United States and asking the question "How will we live tomorrow?" That journey is chronicled in a dedicated blog, www.howwillwelivetomorrw.com, that includes personal writing related to my adventure as well as others' responses to my question. Thank you for visiting.
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