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There’s a mirror, downstage left, on the set of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview — or rather, there’s an imaginary mirror where the stage ends and the audience begins. Characters pause here to check their teeth, admire a private dance move, or think aloud. It’s a common theatrical device, this invisible mirror where characters commune with their reflections (which are, by implication, all of us in the crowd). Except in Fairview, they are very pointedly not all of us, because most of the people onstage are black, and most of the people in Soho Rep’s downtown audience are white. This problem, and the racist society for which Fairview’s stage world acts as a microcosm, is the subject of Sibblies Drury’s hugely intelligent play, directed by Sarah Benson and now running through July 22.
Insightful, mournful, and harboring maybe a glimmer of hope, Fairview begins as a family comedy. In a beige, carpeted living-dining room, Beverly (Heather Alicia Simms) prepares a birthday feast for her mother. She peels carrots, adjusts the lighting. She worries about whether her husband, Dayton (Charles Browning), has purchased the assorted root vegetables she requested; whether her unpredictable sister, Jasmine (Roslyn Ruff), will cause trouble; and whether her brother, Tyrone, will show. Her teenage daughter, Keisha (MaYaa Boateng), arrives home from basketball practice, sweaty and hungry for dinner. The family matriarch lingers upstairs, unseen.
Sounds like a familiar sort of play. But subtle pressures start to crack this naturalistic facade. The radio keeps willfully changing frequencies. Beverly is far more stressed than even the most tumultuous of family dinners warrants. The naturalism ruptures for good when Keisha turns toward the “mirror” and declares, gazing into a spotlight’s beam, that she’s excited for her future — a future of infinite possibilities — but that something is blocking her way. (Sibblies Drury does not think we’re confused about what this could be, nor does she leave us to guess.) Soon, the Frasiers’ living room is the site of a meticulously crafted, metatheatrical experiment in racial discourse. The play stops, stagehands reset, and the same scene begins again — only silently this time. The actors precisely mime their previous actions, while, in voice-over, we listen to a group of what are clearly white people discussing race. One asks which race everyone would be, if they could choose. Asian, says one voice; Latinx, says another. A third finds the question offensive. This discussion goes on at length, with racism — both acknowledged and vigorously denied — bubbling up at every turn, testifying to the many forms of semiconscious bias and sedimented privilege that structure American daily life.
We might silently judge these voices — until they begin commenting on the Frasiers’ story, and we realize: They’re us, white people watching the play. We might notice, now, that set designer Mimi Lien has framed the Frasiers in an oversized proscenium, emphasizing the separation between performers and spectators — them doing, us watching. Yes, there were spectators of color the night I attended (and probably most nights), and Sibblies Drury addressed them lovingly, because her intervention is aimed at White America, which loves to watch Black America. Is this a story about a black family, or a white fantasy about what black families are like? Things become wilder and more Brechtian from here (when “Grandma” finally shows up, she’s white), and culminate in a version of the identity swap envisioned by the disembodied voices. But it’s one with an altogether different tone: It’s initiated by Keisha, who invites white spectators to physically change places with black performers. In the space of the theater, this can be accomplished in a few minutes of good-natured seat-shuffling. In larger society, such exercises in imagination seem near-impossible — but maybe, Sibblies Drury suggests, rehearsing them onstage offers us a dose of the courage we need out in the real world.