Reflections from the Rehearsal Room: Fairview

Reflections from the Rehearsal Room: Fairview

In this preview, Supriya Finch explores how this play confronts audience expectations and asserts black identities as something far beyond the overtly political.

The Frasier family are getting ready to sit down to dinner for their grandmother’s birthday, but everything seems to be going wrong: squabbles keep breaking out, the carrots aren’t chopped yet, and the radio isn’t working properly. It is from this banal domestic scene of African-American middle-class life that playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury begins Fairview: her Pulitzer Prize winning exploration of race politics, in which audiences will find themselves relentlessly accused, absolved, teased and called out. Funny, heartfelt, shocking and searching, this ever-shifting play turns discussions of race inside-out and back-to-front, passing the mic to those we need to hear from the most, and the least, in equal measure. 

During my preview of Qawiiah Bisiriyu and Theo Chen’s production of Fairview, I was struck by  how genuine it feelsI would even go so far as to say that it’s probably the most mature and relatable exploration of racism I’ve ever encountered. Racism in theatre (particularly in that made by white people) is often written as a strangely two-dimensional concept, creating artificial binaries wherein some of us are irredeemably evil while everyone else gets to give themselves a pat on the back. In Fairview, however, we get to see in vivid detail the way that misapprehensions, faulty logical processes and twisted attempts at justice actually lie at the heart of modern racist discourse. Audiences will be asked to examine whether their attempts at allyship could be actually upholding racism, and whether their engagement with black cultural figures is actually a dangerous kind of fetishisation. Fairview shows us how white attempts at the intellectualisation of race issues can so easily be foundered on the rocks of black reality. Hopefully, we in the audience will realise that we should be listening rather than talking. 

I think that one of the strongest points of the play’s examination of racism is the way that, to a certain extent, it rejects race politics - but you’ll have to hear me out on that. I feel like black characters are often forced to become allegories before they get to be people, standing in for an entire race rather than for their own personal history and values. It’s like black stories have to choose between inspiring or despairing; escape from the mire of injustice or sinking into it. They never get to just be, just as so many people of colour are always seen as people of colour before they’re seen as people. 

Fairview, crucially, offers its characters a little more variety, and more importantly, dignity and choice. When the play tries to write a treatise on oppression and subjugation onto the black characters’ bodies I read their response to be ‘my body is not a history. It is a body. My life is not a metaphor. It is my life.’ Chopping carrots becomes a revolutionary act of self-definition. Dancing alone in the kitchen becomes a new way of constructing identity. 

Endlessly complex, tangled and fraught discussions of race are forced to re-centre themselves on the fact that black people live real, mundane lives outside of the constant debates over their right to exist. It isn’t that their identities as black people are proved unpolitical, only that we are reminded that people whose existence has been politicised shouldn’t be forced to be a one-man political protest day-in day-out. People need to learn to see black people as something other than political artefacts or a debate to be won. Though I’m not black, seeing this idea expressed so cathartically on stage by such incredible performers genuinely felt like letting out a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding, and I hope other BAME audience members have the same experience.

Fairview doesn’t exist to stroke anyone’s liberal egos. It is, in the words of Ben Brantley for the New York Times, ‘one of the most exquisitely and systematically arranged ambushes of an unsuspecting audience in years’ - and I can promise you, that’s no exaggeration. Bisiriyu and Chen’s production is irreverent and gentle, not fast-paced but still urgent, and it’s chock-full of standout performances from its wonderful cast. Most of all, to put an overused term to good use, it’s important. I very much recognise the struggle to find a way to discuss race that acknowledges its deeply important political implications while also offering people of colour a chance to figure out how to tell stories about race outside of racism and to be people rather than symbols. Whether or not it finds a solution to this is another discussion, but it was incredible to see a question I’ve been struggling to find the words to even ask laid out so poignantly. Perhaps this is the best thing Fairview has to offer to its audience: it asks all the right questions and gives you an opportunity to find  the answers yourself. 

Fairview will be on at the ADC from the 13th to the 17th of February.

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