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Jackie Sibblies Drury’s brilliant race satire is a must-see… but we can’t tell you why
Jackie Sibblies Drury’s dizzyingly inventive, Pulitzer Prize-winning race-relations satire ‘Fairview’ manages the rare trick of being righteously provocative while more or less demanding you don’t discuss what happens in it with anybody who hasn’t seen it.
This isn’t a case of self-censorship: an email was sent by the Young Vic requesting that we refrain from spoilering its UK premiere, especially vis-à-vis the third act. (Possibly I have gone too far even acknowledging the existence of a third act.)
Which makes it a real bugger to review: usually I’m a bit dubious about the idea that spoilers are a meaningful thing, but there would be a hysterical irony (which I can’t fully explain!) if I, a white guy, decided to go against the wishes of the show’s black creatives and explain exactly what happens. Also, I seem to now be making this review entirely about me, which is also ironic, again in a difficult-to-explain style.
Anyhoo, what I can say is that ‘Fairview’ is a show that has a lot of uncomfortable hidden surprises, none of which are contained in the first act, which sees a middle-class African-American family prepare for a big birthday celebration in mildly neurotic, mildly sitcom-ish, basically fairly normal fashion.
Of all the supremely gutsy moments in Sibblies Drury’s play and Nadia Latif’s production, probably the one I can tell you about is the boldest: expending a third of the play’s running time pretending it’s a bland domestic drama. There is a hint that something is off: at the very beginning, the radio Nicola Hughes’s matriarch Beverly is dancing to distorts disconcertingly; later, there is something odd about the way mass dancing breaks out in the house; and there is an unexpected change in style as Donna Banya’s precocious teenage daughter Keisha is picked out by a spotlight to monologue away to the audience in heartfelt fashion.
But who exactly was she addressing across the fourth wall?
That question is answered in act three, which is the most I will say about act three.
That leaves act two. Without going too much into it, it’s essentially a replay of act one with added white people. Let’s not get into the how, but the what is a jaw-dropping discussion about race between a quartet of white folks: a bleeding-heart liberal, a douchey jock and a performatively fabulous gay guy – all Americans – plus a French woman. All of them feel blithely entitled to discuss their opinions on other races (at one point they discuss Slavs! It’s lovely to feel seen!), but it’s as their conversation turns inextricably towards their opinions of African-Americans that the play starts to become real watch-through-your-fingers stuff.
That’s your lot for hard details, but in essence ‘Fairview’ unfolds as a sometimes hysterically funny, sometimes deeply uncomfortable, sometimes desperately impassioned and earnest plea for white American culture to leave black American culture alone. To not try to appropriate it, fetishise it, dismiss it, render it down to its base components and repackage and resell it; to give it space to be its own thing.
I’ve specifically said ‘American’ because I think whatever resonances ‘Fairview’ may have with racial politics in Britain – and from my ivory white guy tower I would think they were considerable – there’s a cultural specificity at work here that probably means Sibblies Drury’s play won’t land with quite the same incisiveness in London. We are implicated. But we also have some distance, some cover to duck behind. We can tell ourselves it’s about other people.
Regardless, it a fantastically original and probing piece of theatre. Although there are points when the intent of the play is clearly to make its white audience uncomfortable – or at the very least, reflect upon its right to be here – it should be pointed out that Latif marshalls a for the most part hugely entertaining, technically dextrous spectacle, expertly steered from sedate sitcom pastiche to all-out chaos. There’s great work too from designer Tom Scutt: he’s created a lovely chintzy, middle-class home set… and done some other stuff too, that I can’t talk about.
Ultimately to be a white reviewer of this play is to back up much of what it’s saying about white people butting in. At least by asking reviewers to refrain from spoilers, Sibblies Drury is taking some control, has probably spared her play from the most excruciating excesses of critical analysis. But in a nutshell: you should go see ‘Fairview’; I guarantee you’ve not seen anything like it.