By Heather Rosen
There is a reason that Fairview, by Jackie Sibblies Drury, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama earlier this year – it is totally original and memorable, and it deals with an important topic. Kudos to Woolly Mammoth Theatre for choosing this exceptional show to kick off its 40th season. Woolly Mammoth is a cutting-edge DC theater known for inclusiveness and producing shows with thought-provoking and sometimes controversial topics, and Fairview is a perfect fit. I think this show will have audience members talking for a long time - not only about the show itself but also about the entire experience that director Stevie Walker-Webb created for us.
The subject, institutionalized racial biases propagated by situation comedy or “sitcom” TV shows, is a weighty one for sure, but Fairview has a unique and quite entertaining way of making us look at the issue. As with other Woolly Mammoth shows, you should read the printed program before the show begins because it provides extensive background information. Fairview’s program also includes questions to ponder and a suggested reading list.
As soon as you walk into the theater, you know this show is going to be different…theme songs from sitcoms that featured black characters play in a loop (some of the audience members were even having fun singing along.) The story is about the Frasiers, a black American family, and the elaborately designed stage is designed to look like the inside of their home … or at least the parts of the home that we could see if we were watching a TV sitcom.
Beverly (Nikki Crawford) enters the stage/set first. Like a 1950’s TV sitcom housewife, she is whirling around the kitchen and dining room, preparing a meal for her mother’s birthday, all while singing and wearing a dress, pearls and a frilly apron. Shortly thereafter, we meet her handsome, doting husband, Dayton, played by Samuel Ray Gates, and her sassy sister, Jasmine (Shannon Dorsey, whose performance was a standout). We then meet Beverly and Dayton’s daughter, Keisha (Chinna Palmer.) Besides being sweet and pretty, Keisha is highly accomplished in academics, sports and several other activities. By all accounts, the entire family is highly successful, reminiscent of the Huxtables from The Cosby Show. And like most TV sitcom families, everyone was also good looking, healthy, and loving toward one another.
The bright lights then dim and flash, signaling that chaos is about to ensue. Then something very interesting and unexpected happens – the above-mentioned characters replay the entire first part of the show in silence, mouthing their lines. This time around, instead of hearing the characters’ banter, we hear a discussion between 3 or 4 people who we cannot see (although sometimes we see their shadows.) They sound white and affluent, and most of their accents are American, except for one who sounds European (which I thought was an interesting choice by either the playwright or the director). Their discussion is lengthy and frankly, fairly boring (unlike the witty dialogue that was written for the Frasiers), but they end up debating the pros and cons of being a member of races other than their own. Inevitably, these people, who are literally “behind the scenes,” make some sweeping generalizations and assumptions about people of other races. It started to feel a little bit uncomfortable at this point, and I think that was intentional.
Chaos then ensues, and while I do not want to ruin all of the many surprises ahead, let me just say that it was thoroughly entertaining and from minute to minute, you may find yourself, as I did, fluctuating between laughter, confusion and shock, depending on which characters and situations you recognize from your own life. You might even cry a little.
At the end of the performance I saw, the audience was invited to join one of two discussion rooms – the one for people who identify as white or the one for those who identify as a person of color. I joined one of the discussions and I would encourage others to participate too if it’s offered, as it is part of the experience, and also, you’ll likely want to talk to others about what you saw and hear what they took away from the show.
This show is worthy of your time and deserving of your attention. You will learn something new (even people in our discussion group who said they have read several books on this topic said they came away with a new perspective) and probably see some things in a new light. Plus you’ll have much to talk about with your fellow theatregoers. And while this is a heavy topic, everything is served up in a highly entertaining way – just like a good sitcom.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.