I was recently allowed to get a sneak peek at the Gilbert Theater’s production of “Fairview,” the 2019 Pulitizer Prize-winning play by Jackie Sibbles Drury.
Subsequently, I can say it was some of the most powerful, uncomfortable, and truly bizarre theater I have ever seen, though “experienced,” is a much better word.
The play opens into the living room of what could easily be any American’s home. Tasteful furniture, a nice rug, and a dining room table all speak to the banal existence of your average middle-class family.
“Fairview’s” take on this ubiquitous image is the Frasiers, an African American family who in their exaggerated wholesomeness, bring to mind the groundbreaking sitcom perfection of “The Cosby Show.”
There’s comically hysterical Beverly (Jacquelyne Johnson-Hill), who needs everything to be just so for her mother’s birthday dinner. Her long-suffering husband, Dayton (Shaun McMillan), works almost too hard to keep his exasperated wife happy. The arrival of Beverly’s passive-aggressive, meddling sister Jasmine (J. Ra’Chel Fowler) brings some laugh-out-loud dialogue, and the youngest Frasier, teenage Keisha (Jalani Rapu), completes a family that looks just like any other.
In her quest to “make everything absolutely perfect,” Beverly burns the birthday cake (of course), faints dramatically in poor Dayton’s arms, and the stage goes black.
At this point in the play, things go significantly off the rails.
Act II opens with the arrival of new voices, but the stage is dressed the same. A white man (Justin Gore-Pike) and a white woman (Amanda Briggs) begin a contentious conversation about race as a construct and what race they might choose if such a thing were possible.
The incredibly cringe-worthy dialogue here is uncomfortable but is one of the more interesting takes on benign racism that I’ve seen. It’s racism born of stereotype-driven ignorance that doesn’t seek to hate but is equally destructive as it seeks to paint minorities with a broad, incapable brush.
In the background of this racially charged conversation, the Frasiers repeat Act I without speaking any of their lines as another white man (Gabe Terry) and woman (Molly Hamelin) join the conversation happening in the foreground. The cast is now complete: four unnamed white spectators to comment and observe the lives of four black people, much like they’re enjoying a television show.
It’s a lot.
An increasingly angry conversation about what black people are or aren’t continues as the Frasiers go past the point of the previous action in the background. The silent blacks and the chatty whites make for chaotically fascinating theater as the audience confronts the larger conversation threading its way through the scene.
Act II ends in an unhinged monologue delivered to the audience by the play’s loud, swaggering, white, cis-male antagonist. The message, which I won’t write about here, will definitely ruffle the feathers of those listening closely.
Act III, the last in the play, is by far the most confusing. Culminating in a bizarre twist, the play arrives at its message with a shaken, disoriented audience in tow. Frankly, I was happy to see it end — I could finally release the breath I’d been holding.
Chosen for its contentious subject matter by the Gilbert’s artistic director, Lawrence Carlisle III, the play’s director, Deannah Robinson, meets the challenges of the material with a deft hand.
Creating some truly funny moments in a play that seems oppressively heavy at times, Robinson clearly understood the assignment and creates a space that’s hard to stay in but impossible to leave.
Hill, Fowler, McMillan, and Rapu do an excellent job of silently replicating their performances in Act II, while Hamelin, Terry, Briggs, and Gore-Pike commit to performances that are as grotesque as they are brilliant.
The chemistry evident between the play’s actors is a high point of the production. While the play’s commentary almost certainly made for some awkward initial read-throughs, we’re left with the feeling these actors became a little closer throughout rehearsals. It makes the tougher bits easier to swallow.
Technical director Vicki Lloyd’s tidy set and expert lighting design plunge the audience into a bizarre world of meta-theater where we, the audience, become the watchers of the watchers of a show not meant for either of us. Her skillful direction moves the play through transitions that seem simultaneously seamless and jarring. The haunting spotlight on newcomer Rapu in her closing monologue is an image that is sure to stick with audiences long after the play ends.
“Fairview” is a play of outrageous demands and unflinching permissions. It allows itself to be the crude, vulgar uncle at a family barbecue and demands you don’t dare leave the table.
I recommend that you grab a seat and settle in for a necessary conversation.
“Fairview”runs through June 12.
The Gilbert Theater is located at 116 Green St. above the Fascinate U Children’s Museum.
Tickets can be purchased at www.gilberttheater.com/ or 910-678-7186.