Fairview is an innocuous title for a play. It has the ring of a sleepy American backwater, a kind of every-town. The curtain comes up and we are faced with the ground floor of a suburban house. The walls are orchid pink, the dining chairs gleaming white and, in the centre of the stage, Beverly (Nicola Hughes) is peeling carrots. She lip-synchs and dances along to the song playing on the radio, then adjusts her makeup in front of an imaginary mirror hanging on the fourth wall. Her husband Dayton (Rhashan Stone) walks in and ogles her. ‘What are you looking at?’ she asks him.
So far, so familiar. This is the realm of the domestic sitcom, in which a middle-class black American family are preparing for their grandmother’s birthday dinner. The jaunty dialogue and anodyne jokes elicit chuckles from the audience with the regularity of a canned laughter track. If anything, things are a little too perfect, the family’s ‘struggles’ proving comically prosaic: Beverly chastises her husband for leaving a single empty beer bottle in the living room; Jasmine (Naana Agyei-Ampadu), Beverley’s melodramatic sister, is failing to stick to her self-imposed dairy-free diet; Dayton has forgotten to pick up the root vegetables needed for dinner.
Fast forward 90 minutes and this fragile world is lying in shards on the floor. ‘Fairview’ has gone from being a bland place name to a layered pun that plays on the power dynamics of looking, while ‘What are you looking at?’ becomes a challenge to the audience to resist sinking into the comfortable voyeurism that theatre can engender.
Written by the American playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury, Fairview opened in Manhattan in 2018 to a clutch of feverish reviews. In April this year it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and has now transferred to the Young Vic with a new cast and a new director, Nadia Latif. This production boasts an immaculately conceived set and some excellent performances: Agyei-Ampadu is full of vitality and humour, Hughes is pitch-perfect as the stressed housewife and Donna Banya’s Keisha, the daughter of the family, is both cheery and earnest. It is she who ultimately steals the show.
The difficulties with reviewing Fairview are numerous, not least when it comes to race. How should a white critic pass judgement on a play that so boldly challenges the prejudices of the white gaze? More broadly, can the still white-dominated world of theatre criticism really give a fair hearing to a play that questions the white viewer’s very right to be there? Perhaps not, but the mistake would be to clam up in the face of Fairview’s provocations. It’s a play that puts demands on its audience – to watch actively rather than passively, and in particular to notice how the way we interpret theatre is utterly, unavoidably shaped by our own racial identities. In this regard, watching Fairview is a profoundly unsettling experience – I have seldom been more uncomfortably aware of my whiteness than I was while sitting there – but also an endlessly thought-provoking one.
Then there is the element of surprise on which this play relies heavily: to talk in detail about anything that happens after the first twenty odd minutes would give the game away. Yet, in saying this, there is also a danger that the play’s virtues might be lost on audiences who, having heard about its twists, succumb to the whodunnit effect and simply sit there waiting for the big reveal. This is less a fault with the play itself than with reviews that have both overstated the significance of the third act bombshell and understated the cleverness of the earlier parts of the play, in which Sibblies Drury’s writing is at its very best: funny, sinister, intelligent and mercurial.
There’s no doubt that Fairview is a remarkable piece of theatre. Whether it makes any drastically new arguments about race, I’m not so sure – though perhaps that’s because Sibblies Drury understandably feels that the old arguments still need to be made. The idea that black experiences are too often refracted through a white lens is, though achingly pertinent today, a familiar one. It seems to me that the play’s grand achievement is not to have created a new zeitgeist, but to have distilled an immensely tangled discourse around race, power and control into an hour and a half of thrilling, incendiary drama.
Words by Michael Delgado.
Fairview is at the Young Vic from 28th November until 18th January 2020. For more information or to book visit the theatre’s website.
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