‘Fairview’ turns view­ers into viewed

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - DATEBOOK - By Lily Ja­niak

Look, you’re look­ing at some­thing. You’re the priv­i­leged voyeur, and some­one else is placed be­fore you, there to be be­held, judged, boxed in, con­trolled. No­tice that. No­tice how, even be­fore the show starts, the bland yet tacky liv­ing room set (Pot­tery Barn meets An­thro­polo­gie meets Sal­va­tion Army) has a thick, boxy frame around it, like it’s trapped in­side a fish tank. Pay spe­cial at­ten­tion if you’re white, be­cause you’ll get a taste of the other side — what it is to be looked at — be­fore the show is over.

This is the dare of Jackie Sib­blies Drury’s “Fairview,” which opened Thurs­day, Oct. 11, at Berke­ley Rep, in as­so­cia- tion with Soho Rep. For fans of Tay­lor Mac or Young Jean Lee, “Fairview” will rep­re­sent an­other elec­tri­fy­ing con­tri­bu­tion to the con­tem­po­rary the­atri­cal avant-garde, where fram­ing de­vices im­plode, where new scenes re­fract off rather than un­spool chrono­log­i­cally from what came be­fore, where char­ac­ters es­chew the dic­tates of psy­cho-

log­i­cal re­al­ism to tap into a larger truth that can only be ac­cessed through clown show or night­mare or dance rou­tine qua mar­i­onette se­quence.

But even if you don’t typ­i­cally thrill to the the­atri­cally rad­i­cal, “Fairview” re­mains es­sen­tial view­ing. Di­rected by Sarah Ben­son, it cuts through our stan­dard rhetoric about race. What we’re re­ally watch­ing, in a play that con­stantly re­minds you about watch­ing, is how our own racial judg­ments form and what the path be­yond those judg­ments can and must look like.

It’s Grandma’s birth­day, and daugh­ter Bev­erly (Natalie Vene­tia Bel­con) is in a tizzy. Her hus­band, Day­ton (Charles Brown­ing), might have for­got­ten the root veg­eta­bles or left his beer on the wrong ta­ble. Her own daugh­ter, Keisha (Monique Robin­son), might have al­lowed a no-good bas­ket­ball team­mate to crash din­ner fes­tiv­i­ties. And her sis­ter, Jas­mine (Chan­tal Jean-Pierre), brings only rosé and snappy re­torts.

Some­thing feels off about even this first, rel­a­tively nat­u­ral­is­tic scene, though. Why does Sly and the Fam­ily Stone’s “Fam­ily Af­fair” play cease­lessly, ex­cept for when it skips to Iggy Pop’s vastly in­fe­rior (and in­fin­itely whiter) cover of the same song? Why does the fam­ily keep burst­ing into hip­swivel­ing dance, of­ten in sync, as if they’re on am­phet­a­mines or in a mu­si­cal or ma­nip­u­lated by some ex­ter­nal force?

Why do char­ac­ters keep us­ing the fourth wall as if it’s a pri­vate mir­ror, where they’re free to be their most vul­ner­a­ble or in­se­cure or silly or em­bar­rass­ing? Why does Jas­mine em­bark on a lengthy (and spo­ton) par­ody of the struc­ture of a clas­sic Amer­i­can fam­ily drama? (“Some­body dead, and the house ain’t paid for”; its char­ac­ters “talk about how they’re not bet­ter, not yet, but they’re start­ing to be.”) Why does this whole scene feel like part of a sit­com — the clas­sic din­ner where ev­ery­thing goes wrong — and why is Bev­erly anx­ious to the point of hy­per­ven­ti­lat­ing about it?

She’s right to be afraid. In the sec­ond scene, “Fairview” heaps reams of judg­ment on Bev­erly and her fam­ily. Drury’s di­a­logue is a fresh-off-thestreet, un­cen­sored tran­scrip­tion of the white id — all-con­sum­ing blind­ness; petu­lant self-righ­teous­ness born of a mam­moth sense of one’s own in­jury; big­otry too big and too an­gry for re­al­ism; big­otry that has to froth over into the grotesque.

This liv­ing room drama, this birth­day party can­not per­sist. “Fairview” must de­stroy it­self, and Ben­son ren­ders that de­struc­tion as a car­ni­val, a drag con­cert, a bad dream. In all these guises, her cast mem­bers are mas­ters of tech­nique, their act­ing as rig­or­ous as bal­let, so well-timed, so spe­cific and pre­cise are they with vo­cal, fa­cial and bod­ily choices.

“Fairview” doesn’t merely de­stroy, though. Through the wreck­age, it shines a light on you as blind­ing, as re­veal­ing, as invit­ing as a beam from heaven. Let’s clear a way for­ward, it says, es­pe­cially to its white au­di­ences. Let’s cede; let’s make way. The new course will be so beau­ti­ful.

“Fairview” will rep­re­sent an­other elec­tri­fy­ing con­tri­bu­tion to the con­tem­po­rary the­atri­cal avant­garde, where fram­ing de­vices im­plode, where new scenes re­fract off rather than un­spool chrono­log­i­cally from what came be­fore.

Kevin Berne / Berke­ley Reper­tory The­atre

Bev­erly (Natalie Vene­tia Bel­con, left) is in a tizzy about her mother’s birth­day party, and her sis­ter Jas­mine (Chan­tal Jean-Pierre) has brought noth­ing but rosé in “Fairview.”

Kevin Berne / Berke­ley Reper­tory The­atre

Monique Robin­son as grand­daugh­ter Keisha in “Fairview,” a take­down of the con­ven­tional liv­ing room drama, run­ning through Nov. 4 at Berke­ley Rep.

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