At Trinity: Fairview offers an unblinking take on race and place
Aizhaneya Carter as Keisha in Fairview at Trinity Rep. Photo: Cat Laine.
Fairview, the title of the current play at Trinity Repertory Company, seems intended as advice to potential viewers.
The author, Jackie Sibblies Drury, appears to be asking audiences to look at the production impartially in terms of the racial context within which the play occurs. In other words, view it fairly.
Directed by Christopher Windom, Fairview is on stage through June 19 in the Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace Theater at the Lederer Theater Center, 201 Washington Street Providence. The play received the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. It is the 27th Pulitzer winning work to be performed at Trinity Rep since its founding.
Complicated and innovative in design, the production is a study in perspective and point of view. It assumes the challenge of demonstrating the complexity, nuance, and the infinitely layered nature of racial attitudes and prejudices in the American culture.
The fact that bias is often unconscious and innate and comprised of implicit, ingrained assumptions makes the task seem immense.
Drury, Windom and the cast aren’t deterred. Act One of Fairview is deceptively straightforward. An upper middle class Black family is preparing a birthday observance for their matriarch. Their banter and repartee are reminiscent of the grist featured in many 1990s television comedies.
Joshing about the menu for the party, the organizer, Beverly, jousts verbally with her sister Jasmine. Meanwhile, Beverly’s husband Dayton pretends he forgot to pick up the root vegetables. Beverly and Dayton’s daughter, Keisha, a high school senior about to graduate, provides some minor dissonance to the scene, but no more than might be expected. The only moment of high drama comes at the end of the act when Beverly faints from the stress of preparing for the celebration.
Technically, the play is presented without an intermission, but it is clearly divided into three distinct segments. The second one is where things start to get tricky. This is where the format of Fairview begins to ask a bit more than usual from its audience.
In Act Two, the same four actors are on stage. They pantomime the exact movements and blocking that they followed in the first act while silently mouthing their lines. A soundtrack, a voice over if you will, has four other offstage actors discussing things such as what race would they choose to be if they weren’t white and why.
The voices speculate on all manner of implications that stem from racial identity and they cross reference the relationship between gender issues, sexual prowess, and race and so on.
There is a discussion of what kind of homes and possessions wealthy Black celebrities such as O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, and Michael Jordan would have. The comment is made that white people equate one famous Black person with another.
Someone ventures the thought that racial blindness is more likely to confuse people of a different race. Another says Americans talk about race, but not about social class.
The conclusion of one speaker is that “food and love and feeling is what ties you to a people.” Another offers the thought “you don’t know how to chill like Black people. They’re so chill.”
Much that is worth reflecting upon and discussing is presented in the free-wheeling, often profanity laced stream of consciousness-like dialogue. However, in this viewer’s opinion, the disembodied quality of the interaction diminishes the impact. Penetrating concepts are plentiful, but the profundity is blunted by the somewhat cumbersome device of filtering the action through voice over techniques. Yet, that might just be part of the point Drury is making, i.e., attitudes are infinitely filtered and altered by how they are presented and who is doing the talking. One thing for sure, Fairview will make you think.
To detail Act Three would spoil too much of the overall effect of this play. Suffice it to say that the staid, conventional feeling of Act One and the ambiguous structure of Act Two are forgotten and put out of mind by the conclusion of Fairview. Oh boy are they!
The perspective is 360 degrees and there is a bit of everything you might imagine and more. However you were looking at the substance of the play as it began, you will be seeing it much differently when it ends.
The performances are superb. Beverly is played by Mia Ellis with a self-possessed aspect that charms. Joe Wilson, Jr. is Dayton. His talent is omnivalent. It seems there is no role he can’t master. Jackie Davis has the part of Jasmine. Her work counterbalances her scene partners in subtle and sophisticated ways. Well done!
Aizhaneya Carter makes her Trinity Rep debut as Keisha, and what a way to start off! Kudos! Her part is the hub of the play, and she handles the challenge with great aplomb.
Note: The actors who play the white characters in Acts Two and Three are not acknowledged in the original playbill. Check this space after the run ends for my comments on their performances.