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