Regional Reviews: Boston
Since I saw it, I've been wrestling with this captivating play–an absurdist comedy-drama that builds to a searing indictment of the theatre today. Fairview originally premiered in 2018 at New York's Soho Repertory Theatre and went on to win the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In a funny way, the Pulitzer seal of approval plays right into Drury's hand, setting up our expectations for what a nice award-winning play should be. Then, once the show begins, the author gleefully subverts all of our assumptions.
Fairview is structured like a puzzle box, with a series of riddles to solve as we try to deduce what's at the center. What we eventually find, at its core, is an invitation to start a conversation. From the jump, we can see that Drury is keen to have a discussion about race, but what we don't realize is the direction her exploration will take and her uncanny ability to reflect the world she creates back on us.
Suffice it to say, there's more at work than first meets the eye. Take the opening act, which begins with Beverly Frasier (Yewande Odetoyinbo) dancing along to Lizzo ("Good as Hell," of course) as she prepares a special birthday dinner for her mother. Suddenly, there's a glitch in the song and a white voice takes over from Lizzo–just for a few lines. Odd; but no matter, there's plenty more work to do for grandma's birthday.
As the celebratory dinner looms, the Frasiers play out the pesky interpersonal squabbles and broad comedic gestures we've been trained to expect, saturated with depictions of Black middle-class families played out in countless sitcoms and shiny, prestige stage and screen dramas. Scrambling to host the perfect birthday, Beverly contends with her testy sister Jasmine (Lyndsay Allyn Cox), her outspoken daughter Keisha (Victoria Omoregie), and her loving but domestically inept husband Dayton (Dom Carter).
But something is off. The actors feel like they're performing for us instead of playing real characters. The jokes don't always land. Then there are the oddities of the set design (by Erik D. Diaz): the Frasiers live in a tastefully decorated home with artfully arranged family photos and coffee-table books carefully stacked. So why is there a giant portrait of the Obamas on the wall?
You may wonder, is this all a joke? I won't divulge any more of the story except to say that, by the end, Drury's aim is clear and her intent is serious. By using all of the tricks at her disposal to lure us in, and then turn the opening scenario on its head, we see that she's holding a mirror up to us. There's a palpable thrill to the discomfort that this play unleashes; observing everyone else's reactions is as integral to the experience of Fairview as the actual text.
This play is here to challenge the theatre companies that present it, and the patrons who buy tickets. At the top of SpeakEasy's production, we may perceive that we're in a predominantly Black space, given the cast of Black actors and a Black director giving voice to a Black playwright. But over the course of two hours, Drury dismantles this easy assumption, seizing the opportunity to question exactly how much room there is for Black voices in this space. The play, and the theater, are not immune from the white gaze, and the creatives on and off-stage are accustomed to being seen–and watched–through that lens.
Given the ever-shifting styles and tones at play, I'll note how well director Pascale Florestal, the cast, and the design team make all the gears of the play run smoothly. Victoria Omoregie, in particular, is a standout of the cast as Keisha; she has the juiciest role and the heaviest lifting to do.
Press materials describe the ending as "outrageous and jaw-dropping." True, it may jolt some audience members from our comfort zone. As a white theatergoer, I recognize that my takeaways from the performance may be very different from other audience members. But from my vantage point, the show's intent is not to outrage (even if some attendees do feel upset or provoked). Drury pushes us to listen–to really listen–and internalize the active role we play as spectators. By opening ourselves up to hearing the conversation, we can acknowledge who and what we bring with us when we come to the theater to see a nice award-winning play.
Fairview runs through March 11, 2023, at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St., Boston MA. For tickets and information, please visit speakeasystage.com. call 617-933-8600, or visit the Boston Center for the Arts box office.