By Bill Marx
It is refreshing to encounter a script that is so determined to keep audiences off-kilter as it goes about undercutting domestic business as usual.
Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury. Directed by Pascale Florestal. Staged by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, through March 11.
The cutting satire of Fairview, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s exercise in polemical meta-theatricality, is at its most effective when it is at its most playful. In fact, the well-managed and -acted SpeakEasy Stage Company production really comes into its own once sweet anarchy prevails. So much American drama revolves around (and around) family-centered realism that it is refreshing to encounter a script that is determined to keep audiences off-kilter as it goes about undercutting domestic business as usual. In this sense, Fairview is part of a tradition of theatrical deconstruction that runs from Pirandello to the ’60s absurdity of the plays of Arthur Kopit and Edward Albee. Accordingly, Fairview is not so much a drama as an amusingly enigmatic exercise in consciousness-raising: is it about four Black characters in search of a story? Or is it a tale of four Black characters whose faux story is hijacked by … whites?
Writing about Fairview is problematic because the script’s oddball twists and turns are part of the fun, and that makes it nearly impossible to sidestep spoilers. I will do my best not to give away any surprises, though I would point out that the dramatist herself short-circuits her circus of caricatures when she nosedives, from time to time, into earnestness, particularly at the show’s conclusion. Still, there’s enough nerviness throughout to keep you engaged over the dull patches.
The easiest part of Fairview to talk about is its opening section. We are given what looks like a conventional sitcom setup, with a Black family coming together to toss a ritzy celebratory dinner for its matriarch, who is offstage. The woman anxious about giving the dinner, Beverly, trades food-inspired one-liners with her husband, Dayton. Beverly’s sassy sister, Jasmine, comes in with acidic put-downs aimed at all, including what she sees as the disappointingly inexpensive food and wine. Teenage daughter Keisha comes home, adding a note of adolescent rebellion. The proceedings have been tailored to feel a bit canned, yet the interactions are entertaining, especially when they are handled with snappy energy by a skilled cast. Performance highlights include the frenzied fervor of Yewande Odetoyinbo’s Beverly and Lyndsay Allyn Cox’s Jasmine, who delivers her take-no-prisoners zingers in high style.
Still, something seems a bit off. There are weird glitches in the music sound system, the set looks a bit dowdy for what is supposed to be festive shindig, and Beverly is a bit too easily fritzed out when confronted with the inevitable snafus. And what’s up with that prominently placed wall-sized picture of the Obamas?
No answers are forthcoming. The conventional narrative ends abruptly, followed by a shuffling of various theatrical devices and alternative voices. Thankfully, director Pascale Florestal proves to be an adept ringmaster and Drury has come up with some intriguing strategies for lampooning racial attitudes and the mechanics of Black representation. Who is given the “privilege” to define the experiences of others? How do stage, TV, and film reinforce poisonous stereotypes? (Alas, class is mentioned but, as in far too many American plays, there is no follow-up.)
The drawback to Fairview‘s approach is that the ping-ponging point-scoring becomes repetitious — until glorious anarchy breaks out. And the uncertainty about the value of the play’s opening narrative never goes away, no matter how iconoclastic the script tries to be. Are Beverly and the other Black characters caricatures from the get-go? Or do they have a meaningful story to tell that has been throttled? Are various “woke” attitudes being probed — or burlesqued? And what about the play’s ending, an (apparent) heartfelt shout-out from a well-meaning spokesperson? Is the purpose of this speech to launch a thousand guilt-ridden liberal discussion groups? Or is it just another part of the show’s parody? It is hard to tell. Let’s just say that, at Fairview‘s wind-up, audience members are given an opportunity (they think?) to earn their social concern merit badges — and they never come.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of the Arts Fuse. For four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.
Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse says
Bank of America has a full page ad in the Fairview program that salutes SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “success in bringing the arts to performers and audiences throughout the community.” It is no doubt well-deserved praise but, in the spirit of Drury’s iconoclastic script, I would like to supply a contrary voice — a critical one.
According to a January report this year from Bloomberg:
To give you a sense of the lucre involved, here are some numbers from the Sierra Club: “Between 2016 and 2021, Bank of America provided $232 billion in lending and underwriting to the fossil fuel industry, fourth among global banks.”
Bank of America markets itself as a friend of arts and culture while it is systematically funding an industry that is undermining the survival of civilization in the decades to come. I am confident that — as the climate breakdown progresses — critics, artists, and cultural institutions will finally point out this truth in as many ways as they can. They will have no choice but to bite the hand that feeds them — because the other is strangling the earth.
Gerald Peary says
The Obama family portrait is obvious, the reflection of the middle-class, non-militant Black family that put it up. Needless to say, it should have been replaced, perhaps several times, as the play veers right and left. And thanks, Bill, for pointing out that sanctimonious Bank of America congratulations hanging over a Black play.
Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse says
I accept that the Obamas are the amiable ideal of this middle-class family. But where does Drury stand on that? As you say, the portrait sits throughout the show. Are the protagonists deluded? Are white powers-that-be-responsible for ‘selling’ the Obamas to the Black community?
I am with you entirely in what suggest in your comment about the play’s limits. Why doesn’t the set change in the same way as the characters? How about a picture of Malcolm X and his family taking center stage?
As for Bank of America, it is not only that it is supporting a Black play — though its history of redlining is bad enough — it is how the bank uses its support of arts and culture to burnish its image among the well-heeled. It is a strategic distraction from a horrifying reality — that Bank of America is part of a mega-funded effort to keep us hooked on fossil fuels. They profit as the earth burns.
Diane Young says
I didn’t notice an Obama portrait and am wondering if it was replaced by a Harlem poster—oversize, stage left?