Think about walking into a theater. Who is in the audience? No matter where you are, whether you’re walking into the ’92 Patricelli Theater or a Broadway house, the answer is almost universally this: The audience is old, and the audience is white. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule: students attending a matinee as a field trip, a “black-out” audience that’s completely African American for a preview of “Slave Play” on Broadway. But more often than not, the people who feel comfortable entering into theater audiences are white.
Of course, this poses dangerous possibilities for people of color involved in theater. In her stunningly personal speech “High Tide of Heartbreak,” Wesleyan’s Visiting Scholar in Theater Quiara Alegria Hudes reveals the pain of watching characters of color she’s written being so constantly viewed under a pale gaze.
“It is discombobulating and even humiliating to write Latinx characters who will be seen by mostly white audiences,” she says. “It feels like either their brownness or their humanity is the primary performance, the play itself a secondary action.”
When discussing writing the protagonist of a musical, Hudes states, “Writing [her] felt like having a child and throwing her at a bed of nails.”
But what if it were possible to reveal this humiliation? What if it was possible to use performance, a medium that so often feels like a form of violence against people of color, as a tool of liberation? What if we could make visible what so often remains invisible: the awful truth that theater, perhaps more than any other art form now, is a nostalgic refuge where white people still get to laugh at brown people?
Those are exactly the goals of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s outrageous and transformative play “Fairview.” Performed in two sold-out runs at off-Broadway’s Soho Repertory Theatre within the past year, and winning the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the play has become a cultural phenomenon—and for good reason. Combining a dizzying conceptual structure with an intense swirl of comedy and heartbreak, “Fairview” is a confrontational act of witnessing.
This past weekend I was able to see Woolly Mammoth Theater Company’s production of the show in Washington, D.C. (running until Oct. 6). For this biracial theater major, it was one of the most excruciating experiences of my life. But the show also let me feel all of the pain I’ve been denying myself as a brown body in a theater. “Fairview” is not about moving towards freedom, but rather towards a radical awareness of oppression.
“Fairview” begins simply enough, which is part of what makes the show so subversively surprising. Beverly (Nikki Crawford) is a Black woman frantically trying to get ready for her grandmother’s birthday party in her pristine suburban house. Her husband Dayton (Samuel Ray Gates) is helping her prepare the food in all the wrong ways; her sister Jasmine (Shannon Dorsey) arrives, and in a manner resembling comedian Tiffany Haddish, continually breaks down what’s “really” going on in the household. Meanwhile, Beverly’s daughter Keisha (an astounding Chinna Palmer) is a free-spirited young teenager, complaining about sports practice, dancing for her own pleasure, and harboring a secret crush on her best friend, Erika. More family members are supposed to coming to the party. But they’re always caught up with something, because nothing ever works out the way it’s supposed to.
Watching the show’s first act, more than anything, feels like an inevitability, because audience members have been trained to watch a specific kind of conventional Black family drama. Each character on stage is a “type” we understand: exasperated mother, lovable but frustrating husband, loud Black auntie, young girl acting grown. The theater company chose to play the theme songs to “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “The Jeffersons” before the production started. But the roots of this Black family representation go beyond television: The ghosts of the Black Chitlin’ Circuit (made accessible to modern audiences through Tyler Perry’s filmography), and even “A Raisin in the Sun” haunt the proceedings. And something’s not entirely right in Beverly’s household. She’s anxious to the point of obsession. A record player keeps starting and stopping. And the characters at times seem in on the “joke” of their family drama. Beverly delivers a beautiful monologue about the very kind of story she’s in, saying, “And then they all walk on down to the water, with a new shirt on, and the breeze is blowing, and they all look out at at water, and talk about how they’re not better, not yet, but they’re starting to be.” When Beverly suddenly faints, there’s a blackout. Even without us being told, we know something terrifying is about to happen. Getting better, even starting to be, is not what’s left for us.
It’s at this point that I must spoil the show to properly continue this review, and to explore the show in the way it deserves to be studied. I implore you to read the play, which is available online, before continuing. Even the words on the page have the power to astonish. Otherwise, it is time to bear what cannot be borne: the image of Keisha in front of a white audience, performing her Blackness over her humanity.
When the lights come up again, the entirety of the first act plays again. Except this time, we don’t hear the Black family speak: they simply mouth the words. What we do hear is a chorus of white people talking about their fever dreams of becoming someone of a different race. There’s Jimbo (Cody Nickell), who wants to become an Asian person but wants to, you know, subvert their “traditional culture” and be a cool Asian guy. Outraged by this is Suze (Kimberly Gilbert), whose wokeness gets thrown into question when she states she understands the Black experience because of the Black maid who raised her, Mabel. Suze would be Black if she was a different race. The fabulously gay Mack (Christopher Dinolfo) would want to be Latinx, because they’re “muy caliente in the streets and in the sheets.” And the Eastern-European Bets (Laura C. Harris) would want to be Slavic, although her friends protest saying that a different ethnicity is not a different race.
It was horrifying for me to watch, not just because of what was happening onstage, but because of what was happening in the audience. Drury encourages us to laugh at the extreme ridiculousness of the prejudice being spewed by the white characters. But at what point do we start laughing with the white characters instead of at them? Sitting to my left was a Black family, who watched the action onstage with increasing disgust at what was being presented to them. Sitting to my right was a middle-aged white couple, who put their arms around each other and laughed profusely in what was clearly the middle of their date night. Couldn’t the white people see that the self-roasting jokes, which were delightfully witty to them, were actually devastating to the people of color around them? It became clear that the white audiences didn’t understand that at all. As white audience members laughed at the silliness of the white characters, I found myself crying at how deeply they didn’t understand how much panic it was causing me. I felt tears flowing. I sniffled. The audience around me looked over in my direction, their eyes confused and longing. Suddenly I felt just as visible as the family onstage. I tried to make myself small, to apologize for my presence, to silence myself, to not take up space in the world. It was too late.
It might have just been that we were all trying to understand what was happening onstage. Like filmmaker Jordan Peele, Drury is invested in rewinding what we’ve already seen to unveil the disturbing underbelly of so-called coincidences: There were moments of true synchronicity between the voiceovers and physical action on stage. After Beverly faints, the white chorus begins directly commenting on the characters: As the Beverly household dances in unison for a moment of shared familial joy, the white chorus discusses how much they love Black dance and want to be onstage in that moment. And that’s exactly what happens in the play’s third act. Those missing family members who couldn’t come to the party? They arrive in the form of the white actors invading into the space, performing essentially in blackface without the shoe polish. Suze, trying to embody her Black nanny, dresses up in mammy-wear; Bets arrives in an even more extreme version of that outfit. Jimbo walks on in baggy pants with an African print, rapping and encouraging the audience to join in by saying, “When I say ‘nigg,’ you say ‘ah!’” I thought I heard people actually replying. Mack arrives dressed as a Black drag queen, pretending to be Erika, Keisha’s crush. In yellow cornrows, he writhed to “Bootylicious.” I definitely heard an audience member applaud his performance after he finished.
I don’t mean to police the audience members who found entertainment, and enjoyment, in the re-creation of blackface minstrelsy. Drury wants to find the sweet-spot between utter discomfort and outrageous fun, and pushes further and further until it’s terrifying. But who is it terrifying for? I’m reminded of the Solange song, “Don’t Wish Me Well,” when she calmly sings to a white addressee, “I know you always speak on something/So I’ll leave on the mic for you” and then “Thinking that everything is funny/But don’t say that the joke’s on you.” The joke has never been on white people, and they’re free to find humor in the outrageous situational comedy only because they don’t know any better. As much as Drury is hoping to reveal how impossible it is to represent a Black family without the paranoid stresses of a pale gaze, her dramatic project is perhaps more focused on making whiteness undeniably visible. To make whiteness seen, the way Blackness has always been seen.
Watching the show, I couldn’t stop thinking about the white audience members. Do they get it? Do they understand? Do they feel bad about themselves? Do they feel uncomfortable because they feel bad about themselves? I was in a unique position as a white-Asian biracial person in the audience, in that I saw myself as equally in the Black characters as the white characters. I felt guilty, and I also felt devastated. And I knew that my experience as a non-Black person of color was entirely different from the anti-Black racism of being presented. I even saw my gayness reflected in Mack’s gay idolization of the Black diva. But I also saw my gayness reflected in Keisha, whose love for her friend is policed by her family and distorted beyond the point of recognition. Keisha becomes one of the only characters to “see” the whiteness of her supposed family members. And her paranoia at being seen by them finally extends to the audience itself.
It’s Keisha who finally is able to break the cycle of the show, if just for a moment, after the set has been destroyed and the theatrical world irreparably broken. Suze tries apologizing to Keisha, but Keisha stops her, crying that with “your loud guilt, I can’t hear myself think.” Turning to the audience, she pleads us, any of us, to come up onto the stage if you identify as white. So that she might be able to talk to the colorful people in the room, apart from everyone else. The audience slowly, and fearfully, made its way onto the stage. Some white people didn’t get up; they were too uncomfortable, or in a wheelchair, or didn’t leave the side of their friends of color. I didn’t know where to go, me with my white family and country club access. But since when the world sees me, they don’t see a white person, I stayed in the audience. And as the actress Chinna Palmer delivered one final monologue to us colorful people, about telling her own story outside of the way people have always viewed her, there was a sense of communion between us. Her back was towards the white audience. They were finally seen. Under the blinding lights of the stage, they still couldn’t really, truly, see us. But in the dark, the colorful people tried and sometimes failed to see each other. Without them.
Their guilt was so loud, I had to leave. I rushed out of the theater and ran to the bathroom, hyperventilating and crying my eyes out. I still couldn’t erase myself from that world, and their confused stares, no matter how hard I tried.
That was, at least in the theater. I found a space after the show that did give me a world if not liberated, at least separated, from the pale gaze: a post-show discussion for the people of color in the audience. The people in the room revealed who they were: theater students, non-theater people, the grandmothers/sisters of the Black actresses, the actual Black actresses of the show themselves. We also revealed who we really were to each other: heartbroken, weary, terrified, enraptured. We shared experiences of how our interactions with white co-workers and friends left us feeling lost and alone. As the only non-Black person of color in the room, I still didn’t feel like I belonged. But I did feel seen. I shared my experience watching the show. I let myself take up at least a little of that space. Afterwards, a Black gay man offered to give me a hug. I agreed, and held him close if just for a few seconds. I felt seen. And I wasn’t performing my brownness for him. He saw my humanity. And all of this didn’t happen in the show, but in the rupture created by the show. Dee Rees said it best in her film, “Pariah,” about this feeling. “I am broken/I am open/I am broken open.”
This broken-open space was possible after the show, but not during it. I hope Drury knows that this is the case. I hope that the people of color who didn’t go to the post-show discussion found the people they needed to talk to. People who understand.
At the end of Solange’s “Don’t Wish Me Well,” she says some words that describe the end of “Fairview” for me. “And I’m going all the way,” she says, “But I’ll leave on the lights for you./I’m going all the way/And now you’re almost out of view.” “Fairview” goes all the way, pushing theater to its most extreme. It leaves on the lights for white audience members to see themselves. And although it’s impossible, it gestures towards a world where people of color can exist without suffocating whiteness, pointing out its distance on an unreachable horizon. Almost out of view.
Nathan Pugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.