Jackie Sibblies Drury
|Natalie Venetia Belcon, Monique Robinson & Charles Browing|
For the first forty minutes or so, we seem to be watching what one character calls, “a good ol’ family drama ... a slice of life ... nothing big and flashy ... just a real story about real people.” The situations are familiar for anyone who has watched TV sitcoms like Good Times, The Jeffersons, or Family Matters; and the laughs coming from us as audience begin to sound like a piped-in, predictable laugh track.
|Natalie Venetia Belcon & Chantel Jean-Pierre|
The clearly upper-middle-class, African American family – in this case, the Drury Family – is preparing for Grandma’s big birthday dinner. Grown-sister rivalries erupt in the same snippy back-and-forth retorts of a lifetime together; a hubby would rather smooch than help set the table; a rebellious teenage daughter has no compunction putting her tennies on the expensive couch or in arguing for the umpteenth time this week with her exasperated mom; and a brother once again is going to be late for the most important family event of the year. All is predictable in what we (i.e., the mostly white, as usual, theatre audience at Berkeley Repertory Theatre) expect from this kind of family comedy (i.e., one about a modern-day black family in the U.S.). That is, all is going as we expect until it definitely is not; and then the joint world premiere between the Rep and Soho Rep of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s fairview takes us into territories not yet crossed by many, if any, prior premieres on this or any other American Stage.
If a 9.0 earthquake had just occurred on the Hayward Fault underneath us, the upheaval, disorientation, and aftermath of “what just happened?” would not be much different. But rather than resulting destruction, the shake-up in fairview has the possibility of helping us – the white audience – rethink and reconstruct our own views of what we thought it is like to be in the skin of African Americans in 2018. The aftermath of this monumental and important play is that many unanswered questions must first be faced and only over time with much soul-searching consideration, hopefully answered.
The experience of seeing fairview is a carefully, deliberately constructed sequence by playwright and Director Sarah Benson of the audience being at first mildly entertained, then surprised, confused, still amused but in a weird and increasingly uncomfortable way, clearly troubled and squirming in our seats, and finally disoriented and probably uncomfortable as the unthinkable request is made of us. Why and how that sequence occurs cannot be revealed in a review. All I as reviewer can do is to urge every reader not to miss the opportunity to experience a theatre event that will surely be much discussed and revisited in dining rooms, wine bars, and university classrooms for years to come.
There are early hints that what we are observing is not exactly what is really going on. As host Beverley (Natalie Venetia Belcon) hurriedly peels a pile of carrots while listening (and then dancing with hips and shoulders swiveling around the room) to Sly and the Family Stone’s It’s a Family Affair, there is suddenly a static-peppered interruption with a deep, threatening voice-over nondiscernable -- until all returns to what seems normal. The same happens later when her rose-sipping, just-let-me-sit-and-watch-you sister, Jasmine (Chantal Jean-Pierre) takes a saunter around the room to the music.
Beverly’s husband, Dayton (Charles Browning) comes and goes, trying to keep his overly anxious/worried/perfection-seeking wife calm and to tell her everything is going to be OK. But it is when teenage Keisha (Monique Robinson) looks into an imaginary mirror separating the family on stage and us as audience that we get the hint that something we do not yet understand is going on. She senses all is not quite right when she says to herself, “I want to be all I can be ... But I feel something is keeping me from being all I can be.” As she says this in a musing, somewhat disturbed voice, she is looking directly into that unseen mirror ... and thus, at us.
It is Keisha who will eventually be the incredible force that moves us as an audience to reconsider what it means to be us in relation to her -- a young, black, aspiring teenager in America. Ms. Jean-Pierre is one of eight in this ensemble who each will push through boundaries to provide performances that shatter what we expect of them. Sarah Benson’s one-hour, forty-minute play is divided into three distinct acts with no intermission. The first act is the one described above; the next two are when the presence of white people (Natalia Payne, Brooke Bloom, Luke Robertson, Jed Resnick) intersects with the lives of the Drury’s but in ways powerfully unusual and unsettling and unable to be described without ruining the experience for you, the hopeful, next audience.
Everything that the production staff has done to set the stage and to move along this familiar-comedy-turned new-genre-drama has been highly and specifically done so with purpose. Mimi Lien has designed an exquisite home for the Drury’s -- all in whites and beiges – that is full of good taste and style and is walled off by a low, black wall separating it and us, the audience. It looks perfect -- for now at least.
The sound design of Mikaal Sulaiman does much to lure us initially into areas of comfort and hum-along complacency while later imposing in commanding ways a soundtrack that will upend our view of what is really happening. The lighting of Amith Chandrashaker focuses us at times on the inner thoughts of family members (like those of Keisha) and will at one point, place us in the spotlight in a way we probably never have previously experienced as audience members. Costumes by Montana Levi Blanco also fool us in the beginning and later shock us into seriously questioning what is the reality we are assuming of the events taking place. All has been orchestrated by a director (Sarah Benson) who clearly has worked in close partnership with Jackie Sibblies Drury for incredible synchronization of words and actions that often play in totally different dimensions to produce effects powerful, thought-provoking, and question-arousing.
Is the white majority’s view of the black minority in America a “fair view”? What would be a “fair view”? Should there be a view at all? How can or even can African Americans escape the view of the majority, and why is it necessary that they do? These are just a few of a myriad of questions going through my head this morning after experiencing fairview last night. Many new ones will surely emerge in the days and weeks to come.
Berkeley Repertory Theatre (in association with Soho Rep) has once again proven why the company is one of the nation’s leaders in staging productions that literally smash prior, well-established boundaries. Never will the so-called fourth wall seem quite the same after a visit to fairview, and never will audience members think of race relations in America as they did when they arrived.
Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE
fairview continues through November 4, 2018 in Peet’s Theatre of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/boxoffice/index.asp or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.
Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Company