In retrospect, the manipulation by playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury in her show “Fairview” seems obvious. When stagehands came on and quite deliberately changed the set in their theater blacks while light stayed up, the audience laughed mildly, but this was in fact one of the early indicators of the painstakingly intentional work of theater that is “Fairview,” carefully constructed and sometimes right in front of our very eyes.
The show, which opened at Berkeley Repertory’s Peet’s Theatre last weekend, began in the home of an upper-middle-class Black family preparing for a big family dinner. The play took place where most plays seem to: inside the homes of the upper-middle class. A beautiful, well-dressed family in a nice, big house with clean, white sofas and beige, carpeted staircases.
As the show began, it felt comfortably typical, with enough humor and physical gags sprinkled in to make the audience feel as if they were sitting in on the taping of a sitcom. The mom, Beverly (Natalie Venetia Belcon), danced around her kitchen, peeling carrots. The aunt, Suze (Brooke Bloom), made snide comments about her sister’s house while guzzling rosé. All the while, the audience members peered carefully into this suburban lifestyle, the play leaving them exactly where they want to be and always have been: comfortably offstage — the watching, not the watched.
As the show continued, however, there was a break and a reset of the set before the play really got going. A little less than halfway through the show, after the break, the show is run through one more time, but this time with voices coming from the theater’s speakers while the actors onstage just mouthed their lines. White voices talked about if they could be any race in the world, which it would be and why. At first the voices sounded remarkably like a podcast, some millennial stab at relevance in the form of an off-color humor podcast. The family members, still living their lives, reacting out the same scene as before, are now acting over a soundtrack of micro- and even more macroaggressions.
“Fairview,” in many ways, demands not to be reviewed. It asks the viewers to take a much closer look at themselves than at the work of theater, which acts only as a galvanizing force for this introspection.
Listening to the voices gave the white audience members — the majority of most theater audiences — an easy out. The voices overhead immediately identify themselves as problematic, and as you listen to them, it’s impossible to not hold yourself separate and avoid thinking of yourself as among these tactless voices playing over the speakers. This dichotomy of what a good white person looks like and what a bad white person looks like is a question that isn’t often addressed in theater. There is an assumption that the people in the audience are the good ones and they’re all pointing a finger and judging the bad ones onstage.
You’re in the “in” crowd, an ally, looking disapprovingly at the bad kind of white person perpetuating violence against marginalized groups, something you would never do. You are an ally, and you are paying at least $45 to prove it. “Fairview” makes you work quite a bit harder than that.
What “Fairview” makes quite clear in its last moments is that a good white person and a bad white person look the same. They both drown out the words of those trying to speak with their “loud guilt.”
Theater written by Black playwrights about issues concerning race are often tasked with the job of pulling in white viewership and not alienating those in attendance, taking on the job of educator and counselor. This means a gentle hand and not pulling too many punches. “Fairview,” on the other hand, asks the question of what theater would look like if it stopped talking to white people and catering to the eyes and ears of people whom the works aren’t even really for. Because ultimately, all theater should not just be for the people who can shell out the $45 to be there.