Review: Definition Theatre Examines Perfection, Black Lives, and the White Gaze in Fairview
Is there much more to be said of the “White gaze” aka how Black people are viewed, accepted into society, or doomed to the systemic spoils of racism? That is some of the premise of Fairview by playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury, awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2019. Sibblies Drury follows the success of Black women playwrights Suzan Lori-Parks and Lynn Nottage peeling back the layers of womanhood and being Black in America. Fairview is a Chicago premiere by Definition Theatre, under the direction of Tyrone Phillips, artistic director.
Fairview has a lot to say about how Black women in particular are under tremendous stress to be twice everything to get one step forward. A Black family is preparing for the birthday party for the matriarch. Beverly (Kandice Robins) is in panic mode with preparations for the party. She puts her husband Dayton (David Goodloe) and daughter Keisha (Jada Jackson) on the edge with her demand for perfection for the diva mother who is resting upstairs.
Martasia Jones and Jada Jackson. Photo by Joe Mazza, BraveLux.
The first act says more about the expectations that Black people put on themselves to attain the approval of society. As a Black woman, that is something that I ask myself. Who are we trying to please and why is that approval so necessary? Robins does a fine job of the overstressed and overachieving Beverly. Goodloe is great as Dayton, a good Black man who loves his family. Dayton wants desperately for the day to be over because his sister-in-law Jasmine (Martasia Jones) is coming over, bringing her tornado of drama.
Jones is hilarious as the over-the-top Jasmine who makes an entrance wherever she goes and gets under Beverly’s skin every chance she gets. The brie is a cheap brand and her wine must be put in the freezer to be extra cold because it is a French rosé. She puts her sister down for putting up a front and then asks for an ice cube in her wine, which is as much a faux pas as wine in the freezer.
Keisha is the overachiever that her mother wants her to be and she dares not broach the idea of a gap year before college. She is in three sports with great grades and belongs to all of the right clubs at school. She is also a lesbian, which Beverly accepts, being the enlightened woman she is, except don’t have her “best friend” over for dinner because Mama is from a different era. The action goes into high dudgeon, the cake burns, Keisha’s lesbian girlfriend is at the door with a mysterious envelope, and then the stage goes dark.
Martasia Jones. Photo by Joe Mazza, BraveLux.
I was told that there was no intermission but there was a break while the stage was being reset. They even found a tiny piece of carrot in the rug fringe and everything was just as it was when the play opened. The lights come up and the actors are back on the stage but only mouthing their lines and performing the same actions. The change is that a group of White people are on the side looking in and having an incendiary conversation. What would they choose if they could be another race? It appears that they can see the family in the house as they talk about what they would be if they were not White
Max Stewart plays Jimbo the White “bro” type who thinks it would be cool to be Asian much to the horror of Suze ((Barbara Figgins) who doesn’t want to be any other race. Stewart has a great emotional range that I saw in Windy City Playhouse’s Southern Gothic. They are joined by Mack (Collin Quinn Rice) who is flamboyantly gay and wants to be Latinx. He is very critical of Barbara for not choosing a different race or ethnicity and the fact that she says Latino while he emphasizes the X in Latinx. The two men are obnoxious as they accuse her of thinking that she is too good and looks down on other people. They are joined by Bets (Carley Cornelius) who affects a Slavic accent of unknown origin and comments on how Americans are obsessed with race.
All of them except Suze act as if another race is something that one can just appropriate and the minstrelry applies to Black, Asian, and Latino. It becomes a story of excess and extreme stereotypes—how people go about life and how they are observed becomes performance art. Fairview takes a turn to the abstract and extreme. The food is brought out and covers the table. It looks like the inside of a catalog refrigerator with that perfectly intact turkey and random gelatin mold. The Frasier family becomes that family in the old Sears catalog. American abundance and perfection in action. The visual and emotional excess is one of the best parts of the play
Some of the dialogue is hilarious. I particularly enjoyed the overly dramatic presumptions that someone is on drugs, is pregnant, or has a disease. The stereotype of the suffering Black woman calling out to God and speaking in tongues is done to perfection. Some of the dialogue falls flat because of timing. Fairview segues into high gear without everyone keeping pace. Director Phillips does an able job but it loses something in translation, but perhaps that is the point. In the attempt to label people, the reality gets lost.
Faurview asks questions about race and why we cannot see each with an open mind without needing to label or define. I did not like the ending. The fourth wall is broken in earnest with an emotional plea to be heard and seen. This is where Fairview fell flat and lost the comic edge. Yes, comedy and lessons on race can be in one place at the same time but not in this case. This is a fine effort by a talented cast but I see the direction and the interpretation of Sibblies Drury’s writing as the issue here.
I recommend this show as an opportunity to open up about how we see each other. There is also a Black gaze on Black people that I have experienced. When someone is called bougie, sometimes it has the “you’re trying to be White” undercurrent. Jasmine’s character touches on it but not very deeply. Sometimes the call is coming from inside the house and that could have been explored more in-depth.
Fairview has been extended through May 28 at The Revival, 1150 E. 55th St. Running time was almost two hours with no intermission. Tickets are $35. For more information about Definition Theatre and the work they do as a business and arts incubator, please visit www.definitiontheatre.org
For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.
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