Stage Door Review 2023


Friday, March 10, 2023


by Jackie Sibblies Drury, directed by Tawiah M’Carthy

Canadian Stage & Obsidian Theatre, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto

March 9-26, 2023

Beverly: “You don’t just watch a person and they don’t know you’re there and you’re just standing there just looking at them”

Fairview by American playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury is like no other play you have ever seen. Drury is interested in exploring genre and the representation of Blackness in theatre. To that end she has constructed Fairview so that it begins as one kind of play but takes several surprising turns in order to deconstruct the viewing experience of the audience. Because of that fact I cannot discuss the entire play and I urge anyone who plans to see Fairview NOT to read any of the plot summaries available online. Fairview is an experience much more than it is a play and knowing too much about what is going to happen will spoil the experience. As a production the play is wonderfully acted, beautifully designed and directed by Tawiah M’Carthy with a clear sense of meaning of the play’s unusual overarching structure.

Toronto has seen a play by Drury before, namely her 2012 work with an impossibly long name beginning We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia ...The subject of the play was nominally the genocide in 1904-07of the Herero people when it was a colony of Germany and called Deutsch-Südwestafrika. The real subject is the failed attempt by a group of actors – three Black, three White – to create a play based on the subject through improvisations until they realize that their paltry efforts can in no way adequately represent the enormity of the subject they wish to portray.

Representing Black people’s lives on stage is also the subject of Fairview as well as the viewing of Black people’s lives on stage. The action takes place on a two-storey set by Jawon Kang, one of the most elegant and elaborate sets the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs has seen. It shows the all-white living room and dining room of the Frasier family with huge ceiling-high windows and a staircase leading to bedrooms on the second floor.

In the text of the play Drury divides the action into three acts, even though the play runs 90-100 minutes without an interval. The play begins with Beverly at an all-white table with six all-white chairs peeling carrots in an effort to prepare for the big family birthday party she is having for Grandma, her mother. When she says several times that she wants everything to be “perfect”, we already know what kind of play we are seeing. It’s going to be yet another “dinner-party-goes-wrong” play, the kind of formulaic play that American and Canadian playwrights seemingly cannot stop writing. Just earlier this season Canadian Stage presented Public Enemy (Ennemi publique) from 2015, another “dinner-party-goes-wrong” play by Québécois author Olivier Choinière, albeit one that, like Drury’s, also dismantles the structure of that kind of play.

One by one in sitcom-like style we meet each of the important characters – Dayton, Beverley’s husband; Jasmine, Beverly’s sister; and Keisha, the teenaged daughter of Beverly and Dayton – who each have their comic turn to introduce the narrow parameters of their characters. Problems begin when Beverly’s brother Tyrone phones to say he won’t make it to the party. Beverly is afraid Keisha’s friend Erika, whom Grandma dislikes, may drop by during the party. And, worse of all, Grandma, the guest of honour, has for unknown reasons locked herself in the bathroom.

It may occur to some frequent theatre-goers that the “dinner-party-goes-wrong” play is an almost exclusively White subgenre. It may also occur to the same theatre-goers that a wealthy family with such an opulent home is not how Black people are regularly pictured in plays. If you have these notions you are not wrong. This is precisely what Drury wants the audience to think. She has slotted Black characters into a genre and mode of living that most people would identify as “White” and wants us to feel the dissonance between the form of the play, its setting and the characters who inhabit it.

There is one surprise I have to reveal to discuss the play. Drury’s Act 2 begins when the actors replay Act 1 from the very beginning except this time they only mouth their lines. What we hear instead is a voiceover of four white twentysomethings having a discussion on the ridiculous topic, “If you could be another race, what would you choose?” The topic unleashes streams of clichés about various of races, including Blacks, that reveal the speakers as privileged and uninformed and unworried that they are uniformed. Only one of the four calls the whole discussion “stupid” and wants them to stop pursuing the topic any further.

The views of this one voice certainly coincided with this audience member’s view. It’s bad enough to overhear people talking during a play. It’s even worse when what the people are saying has no relevance to what they are watching. Drury creates the strange feeling that the four have seen the first act before since they know when a significant event is coming, yet they talk through the replay of Act 1 in near total disregard of what is happening.

I found this section almost unbearable. To have to listen to unceasing inanities while actors are “speaking” and moving about the stage is a theatre-goers nightmare only made worse when the remarks are all casually racist. Act 2 also commits the worst sin in drama of being boring. We have seen all the action on stage before and the four voices’ discussion is so repetitious it feels as if Drury has artificially lengthened it to coincide with the time of the replayed Act 1. Choinière in Public Enemy also replayed his entire first act, but there he at least switched the location to an adjoining room so that we perceived the dialogue as it pertained to the two people who occupied the next room.

Given the deliberate sitcom-like effect of Act 1, we have to assume that the discomfort Drury induced in Act 2 is precisely on purpose. She forces us to listen to White people preoccupied as usual with themselves without even acknowledging the work the Black actors are doing in front of them.

Luckily there is a change that sets off the series of surprises that finishes the play. These I won’t mention except to say that the play that began as what we thought was going to be light entertainment, turns out to be a thoroughly didactic excersise. Drury has constructed the three acts of Fairview as part of a process to educate the audience.

In We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia ... Drury examined the ability of a Black and White group to represent the past. In Fairview Drury examines the ability of a primarily White audience to assess a crypto-White story about Black people. Both plays are examinations of failure. It would seem less like a stunt if Drury did not have to shift into so overtly a didactic mode in Act 3, but given that she has already undermined the play of Act 1 with the foolish chatter of Act 2, she might as well break the whole dramatic form open in Act 3.

Canadian Stage provides audiences with a host of “Post-Show Resources” for Fairview, obviously assuming that theatre-goers will have questions about what Drury’s play is supposed to mean. One of these resources is an interview about the play that Drury gave to Vogue magazine in 2019. The excerpts that Canadian Stage provides are helpful, but it is only by reading the entire interview that you realize that Drury herself is aware of the inherent paradox of her play: “This play couldn’t happen for an audience that was entirely people of color. It needs to have white people to function. So even this play, that is trying to decenter whiteness, actually centers whiteness in and of itself”. The strange irony of Fairview is that the popular “black-out nights” that plays by Black playwrights have had recently would be impossible for this play. It’s a play about White audiences and their expectations in seeing a Black cast.

Beyond that, Fairview is about the inherent paradox of theatre itself. Drury has Beverly tell Dayton when he sneaks up on her while she’s looking at herself in the mirror (i.e., out to the audience), “You don’t just watch a person / and they don’t know you’re there / and you’re just standing there just looking at them”. This is the situation with theatre except that we forget that the people we are watching actually do know we are looking at them”.

Canadian Stage and Obsidian Theatre have assembled an excellent cast. Ordena Stephens-Thompson is clearly the soul of the Frasier family just as she was the soul of the beauty parlour in Trey Anthony’s ‘da Kink in My Hair last year, even though Beverly of Fairview is completely different from Novelette in ‘da Kink. Whereas her Novelette was a woman in complete control, her Beverly is a woman nearly at her wit’s end . Despite this, Stephens-Thompson exudes so much warmth as Beverly that anyone would forgive her quixotic quest for perfection.

Sophia Walker is very funny as Beverly’s snappy sister Jasmine. Though the two sisters may argue, Walker and Stephens-Thompson makes it clear that this is more out of habit than any real animosity.

Peter N. Bailey plays Beverly’s loving husband Dayton, perhaps in a more sitcom-like fashion than the two women, but certainly in accordance with Drury’s wish that we perceive the generic nature of Act 1. Similarly, Chelsea Russell’s unhappy teen Keisha has a certain clichéd quality. Nevertheless, Russell does manage to suggest that Keisha has a general concern that preoccupies her but that she can quite name. What precisely this is we do not learn until Drury’s Act 3.

The annoying White voices belong to Sascha Cole, Colin A. Doyle, Jennifer Dzialoszynski and Jeff Lillico, who fulfil Drury’s requirement for the four to sound like crass and clueless young people.

Drury’s Fairview will stand as a landmark of American deconstructionist drama, although Canada’s has produced its own landmark in that style with Mani Soleymanlou’s Un.Deux.Trois. trilogy completed four years before Fairview. Fairview may have been accorded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2019, but there are two main counts against it. One is the excessive tedium of the play’s Act 2. The second is its heavy dependance on surprise. In the age of social media, surprise will last only until the first tweet after the first preview.

I feel lucky to have seen the show without knowing anything about it, but I do wonder how successful the play will be once time has passed and Drury’s multiple surprises, all geared to make an audience rethink its role and its prejudices, are no longer surprises. Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog, which concerns the same subject as Drury’s play of the White gaze and its malign effects and is not indebted to theatrical tricks and shocks, is by far the stronger play. Parks’s play has the advantage of appealing to an audience emotionally as well as intellectually rather than Drury’s play which concerns unconscious prejudice and asks above all for an intellectual response.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Beverly, Peter N. Bailey as Dayton, Sophia Walker as Jasmine and Chelsea Russell as Keisha; Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Beverly, Sophia Walker as Jasmine and Chelsea Russell as Keisha; Peter N. Bailey as Dayton and Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Beverly© John Lauener.

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