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A CurtainUp Review

"Yes, girl, a good old family drama. A slice of life. I love those movies. You know, nothing big and flashy, just watching real stories about real people."
"Nothing real about those kinds of movies. Those kinds of things just don't happen in real life."
"Don't even try to start an argument with me, what is wrong with you, can I live?"
"We are nothing like the people in those movies."

MaYaa Boateng (foreground) and Heather Alicia Simms (Photo: Gerry Goodstein)
A pristine living and dining room, immaculately clean and overwhelmingly white, welcomes the audience into Fairview. Jackie Sibblies Drury's Pulitzer Prize–winning play premiered last summer at Soho Rep; in its encore run, now on Theatre for a New Audience's towering Brooklyn stage, Mimi Lien's scenic design has scaled up accordingly, with the grand height and openness that evokes a suburban development. A tight black box cinematically frames the stage, even cropping off some of the floor.

This is nearly all that can be said about Fairview before we start to veer into what could be considered spoiler territory. A few more safe facts: The home belongs to Beverly (Heather Alicia Simms) and her husband Dayton (Charles Browning), who are hosting a family get together for her mother's birthday. The first two guests to arrive are Beverly's judgmental sister Jasmine (Roslyn Ruff) , daughter Keisha (MaYaa Boateng), a typical teenager. It's also not irrelevant to note that the Frasier family is Black.

But from there on, I hesitate to get more specific. If you fancy yourself an avid theatergoer, then my advice would simply be to take me on faith and go into this play cold, whether you can experience it as an audience member or as a reader (the script is forthcoming from Theatre Communications Group next month).

The work that Drury has created is smart, unexpected, richly layered, difficult, and even confrontational. Brought to life by a skillful cast and Sarah Benson's adventurous direction, Fairview moves from an unremarkable, sitcom-worthy premise to an urgent, incisive examination of how we think about race in America and what it means to give voice to the Black experience through art.

Drury toys with form in ways that allow her to walk a seemingly impossible line, offering a critique that is at times quite explicitly stated without coming off as overwrought or unnecessarily heavy-handed. She successfully harnesses absurdity not only within the story itself but in the way that the story is told to create a piece of drama so unstable that eventually the very theatrical structures (literary and spatial) that support it can't help but break apart.

What do I mean? Once more I urge you to turn back before I explain further. Here's a final warning before a major spoiler of what Fairview has in store—something I reveal reluctantly, but that feels necessary to really get at what is so smart and impactful about Drury's play and Benson's production.

The Frasiers only get so far into their drama before the play resets, now with an audio overlay of four unseen but unmistakably white figures talking about race. The discussion first seems distant, tangentially related at most, but begins to more recognizably dovetail with the Frasiers. Eventually it collides head on and begins to corrupt the very "plot" of the play. These white conversants (Hannah Cabell, Natalia Payne, Jed Resnick, and Luke Robertson) actually enter the story, seizing control of the remaining roles and redirecting the narrative according to their stereotypes and prejudices.

If there was a story Fairview seemed to be telling, we come to realize that Drury has effectively nuked it. Benson's staging captures this jarring, explosive aftermath with the help of designers Montana Levi Blanco (costumes), Amith Chandrashaker (lighting), Mikaal Sulaiman (sound), and Cookie Jordan (hair/wigs), in addition to Lien's set. Raja Feather Kelly's choreography and fight direction by J. David Brimmer also play important roles.

Benson and Kelly also deserve praise for their handling of the play's second act (when the four white actors speak over the silent stage action of the Frasiers). The script leaves a great deal open to the director's interpretation in deciding the specifics of what's happening on stage during this period, and the result here is finely tuned, with precise overlaps and movement that exaggerates the everyday quality of the scene.

Crucially, Drury's provocation has a direct point, which Boateng movingly delivers in Keisha's final monologue. It doesn't seem right to take the words out of her mouth, but suffice it to say that the play's final movement forces audiences to examine their position within and beyond the space of the theater. For example, Fairview asks us to consider the consequences of packaging the Black experience for the theater world's overwhelmingly white audiences and powerbrokers (and, yes, critics), no matter how well intentioned they may be.

Using creative formal innovation and keen humor, Drury offers a window into the frustrations of living and creating as a Black person within our not-so-post-racial world. Thanks to her acute observations, this sharp cast, and Benson's pulsing production, Fairview as a whole is constantly challenging, but always worth the attention.

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by Jackie Sibblies Drury
Directed by Sarah Benson
Choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly

with MaYaa Boateng (Keisha), Charles Browning (Dayton), Hannah Cabell (Suze), Natalia Payne (Bets), Jed Resnick (Mack), Luke Robertson (Jimbo), Roslyn Ruff (Jasmine), and Heather Alicia Simms (Beverly)
Scenic Designer: Mimi Lien
Costume Designer: Montana Levi Blanco
Lighting Designer: Amith Chandrashaker
Sound Designer: Mikaal Sulaiman
Hair and Wig Designer: Cookie Jordan
Fight Director: J. David Brimmer
Properties Supervision: Ryan Courtney
Associate Director: Garrett Allen
Dramaturg: Madeline Oldham
Production Stage Manager: Shane Schnetzler
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes with one intermission
Presented in association with Soho Rep. at Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
Tickets: $55–$115,
From 6/2/2019; opened 6/16/2019; closing 7/28/2019
Performance times: Tuesdays–Sundays at 7:30 pm (no performance on July 4) and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 6/22/2019 performance

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