The Woolly Mammoth Theater Company has rocket-launched its 40th anniversary season with a searing production of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Explosive, riveting, and totally unique, this brilliant work reminds us of the singular power of art to expose our deepest societal schisms. Woolly Mammoth’s production, directed by Stevie Walker-Webb, is the first since Fairview’s 2018 premiere production in New York. It is a must-see, but be aware, this play is far from a typical theater-going experience.
Fairview starts with a familiar sitcom vibe. We’re invited into a comfortable home harking back to The Jeffersons and other “breakthrough” black TV comedies of the ’70s. The well-to-do Frasier family has gathered to celebrate Grandma’s birthday. All the character types are well-known: the super-efficient mom Beverly, her good-natured husband Dayton, their bright and energetic daughter Keisha, and Beverly’s sister Jasmine, whose wiseacre sarcasm ignites any room she enters. Beverly bustles through the well-appointed house, nervously insisting that the dinner must be perfect. Dayton and Keisha are enlisted to help. Jasmine offers no assistance but comments on everything. Amidst the bustle, however, something is a bit off. Beverly can’t stop peeling carrots, the tape deck malfunctions, the birthday cake burns, and Beverly finally crumples from stress.
The next scene propels us into the surreal. The black bourgeois Frasiers are now being watched by and commented upon by a quartet of off-stage voices whose speech patterns themselves suggest certain stereotypes. While the Frasiers spookily and silently resume their activities, the quartet surveils them and muses on questions of race. They ask each other, “If you could choose to be any race, what race would you be?” The query is seemingly innocuous – a sort of parlor game being played by bored people ensconced in their leisure. But their answers spiral into extraordinary racist tropes and horrifying, unapologetic expressions of white power. When Drury conjures a meet-up between the observers and the observed, chaos reigns.
Drury’s way of resolving (or not) her steadily thickening plot involves the audience in an unexpected way. A big piece of that resolution assumes (accurately, in this case) that the play-going audience is largely white and open to serious discussion of the power equation in America. The ending forces us to think back to the title itself. What starts as perhaps the name for the anodyne American suburb in which the Frasiers may live concludes with penetrating questions about the nature of fairness itself.
Woolly Mammoth’s incredible cast brings Drury’s work fully to life. Nikki Crawford (Beverly), Samuel Ray Gates (Dayton) and Shannon Dorsey (Jasmine) not only click fully with their verbal banter, but under Walker-Webb’s astute direction, they are balletic and precise with the movement (comedic and otherwise) required of their roles. Chinna Palmer, a recent Howard University graduate, shimmers as Keisha. Delicate as a butterfly and strong as a steel cable, she imbues this pivotal role with warmth, heart and a hesitant sort of bravery that keeps the audience in her thrall throughout. As the quartet of observers, Cody Nickell (Jimbo), Kimberly Gilbert (Suze), Christopher Dinolfo (Mack) and Laura C. Harris (Bets) are a manic, unstoppable force.
Scenic designer Misha Kachman provides an interior of the Frasier home that is pastel-perfect, fussy yet as bland as the Frasiers seem to be at first. The partial Palladian window on the second floor is both a towering emblem of their success and a means by which people can peer inside their lives. Costume designer Ivania Stack outfits Beverly in poufy-skirted splendor – the perfect ’70s hostess. Jasmine’s jazzy green, low-cut jumpsuit allows her to strut suggestively throughout the evening. Keisha is the only character afforded costume changes, perhaps a nod to the ‘beats’ she goes through as racial claustrophobia closes in on her during the evening.
Woolly Mammoth’s production of Fairview is not only an unforgettable evening of theater but it also literally challenges white-majority audiences to look at themselves as playgoers who have historically “owned” their seats. But as Keisha says, no group can or should own those seats forever. What would it look like if white people cede their tenancy? What would be the effect on black people? Those are questions that haunt the play, and, presumably, fuel the facilitated discussions on race that follow each performance.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.