Modern Family: review of the introduction theater “Fairview”
Division Theater just kicked off the Chicago premiere of Jackie Cibeles Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fairview,” an ill-fitting but stadium-perfect show. The production, under the subversively intelligent direction of Definition Artistic Director Tyrone Phillips, continues to drive relentlessly to unexpected heights of humor and drama and into the depths of America’s racial divisions. Much of Chicago theater this year has been striving to make local theater more inclusive. Many of the plays I’ve seen that are historical events and race-themed have been produced in the usual settings where audiences tend to be significantly less diverse. In America’s fourth most segregated city, it makes sense to sing where songs weren’t sung before. This production, which was staged at The Revival, a space in Hyde Park, raises the odds of filling seats with audiences diverse in many dimensions, but perhaps especially with whites and blacks. This adds to the punch in Drury’s play. The audience at the end is asked to separate by race – to actually separate themselves in different areas of the stage. It is a work that ultimately aims to impugn the standard false and shallow narratives that white people use to demonize and degrade black people. In other words, the goal is to end the virulent divide by creating a constructive divide.
Before Drury’s play gets there, “Fairview” goes through several modes. As with her other plays (see our recent review of “We Are Proud to Present…”), the author addresses both the conventions of theater and the conventions of racism. Fairview begins in the television situation comedy style. It’s set in a standard comedy theatre’s family room, decorated with a mix of nice contemporary furniture. There’s an unexceptional abstract painting atop a nondescript sofa and a bit of World Market-centric Afro decor.
It’s Mama’s birthday. Dressed in an elegant but simple skirt and jacket, her obsessive-compulsive adult daughter, Beverly, totally needs it all. She sits at a table clumsily peeling carrots while munching on Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday.” When her observant, strategically drenched husband enters, we get the classic sitcom “crazy aunt so-and-so is coming” moment. and “What!? You didn’t tell me?!?” to go with it. The unwelcome guest is the narcissistic Sister Jasmine. Soon she arrives in a leopard skin shirt and leather leggings and a genius to slash and slash with her zingers. The family comes together when they recreate one of Mama’s dances and move synchronously around the room.
Jokes fly, and family tension builds, but Drury keeps the stakes so intentionally low that by the time she literally freezes and then restarts the show, the jokes and dancing are all that need to be cared for, and just barely. Don’t be fooled. This is like the calm of Christmas on the war front before an all-out attack. After a short technical break to reset the stage, the action starts again from the beginning. The black cast is silent this time around, but a group of white characters standing to the side have a hilarious, funny, and creepy conversation about race. This is just the beginning of a full first round disassembly. Elements of Ionesco and other classic absurdists that were strong in Drury’s “We’re Proud of the Present…” are once again working sinisterly. Edward Albee also seems to loom among her influences. Drury can conjure up a mountain of existential despair as well as the rest, but she’s also after the greater social stakes as well as the soul of a nation.
Director Phillips has assembled a strong, fearless cast that engages with humor, horror, and horror in humor as the play transitions from drama to landmine. Of the terrific ensemble, Martacia Jones is the tough sister who kind of serves up a Hell on Wheels who makes a great character, but she’s a lousy dinner guest and Carly Cornelius as the stakes, who’s hilarious and absolutely horrific as the bumbling Eastern European with streaks. whose contempt for Americans’ obsessions with race covers itself. Jada Jackson, as the youngest member of the family, does a great job showing how difficult it can be to survive emotionally in a crazy, crazy world.
Definition Theater “Fairview” at The Revival, 1160 East 55th Street, definitiontheatre.org. until May 22nd.