One of the earliest
forms of American theater is the minstrel show. White performers would tar their face and biggen their lips in imitation of African-Americans to mock and deride them all for the sake of comedy and entertainment. Even Black
performers would capitulate to the exaggeration. They donned the tar face and exaggerated their natural lips. Performing to white audiences, they would ham up the stereotypes while simultaneously trying to show "authentic" black life.
Blackface and minstrelsy are so intertwined with the foundation of American entertainment that the first commercial American sound movie, The Jazz Singer
, starred Al Jolson - "the king
of blackface performers." Though the prevalence of minstrel shows as common American entertainment has diminished, just like Eckerd pharmacies were replaced by CVS and Blockbuster was replaced by Netflix, do artifacts of history ever truly go away?
While there isn't overt blackface at 4th Wall Theatre Company's production of Jackie Sibblies Drury's, Fairview
, perhaps tar and exaggerated features are no longer needed to humiliate African-Americans. Their mere existence is such a tragic and downtrodden state that their ability to have fun and enjoy their lives is the punchline. Isn't it funny how well they bare suffering?
Directed by Aaron Brown, Fairview
unravels in three parts. In the beginning, Beverly (ShaWanna Renee Rivon) prepares dinner for her mother's birthday. Anxious and high-strung, she orders her husband, Dayton (Derrick Brent II), around and annoys her sister, Jasmine, with her judgmental asides and perfectionist tendencies. She worries about her daughter, Keisha (Ciara Shabree Anderson), like any mother hen and chastises her brother Tyrone over the phone for not preparing better. The set-up for the standard middle-class family drama has been established.
But then. The second act.
Starting from the second act, the ubiquity of white surveillance and its deleterious effects on racialized people gradually unfolds until it inevitably transmogrifies its invisible gaze into something overwhelmingly conspicuous.
Beverly (ShaWanna Renee Rivon) and Dayton (Derrick Brent II) in marital bliss.
Photo by Gabriella Nissen
The actors perform the same lines and blocking as the first act, but they can no longer be heard. Instead, the audience listens to a voice over from a group of four people. The voices speak as though they are observing the family in a control room. In between making remarks of how much "attitude" and how "sensual" members of the black family are, they ask each other questions like "what race they would be." With uninhibited verve, the four make their true feelings about race -particularly black people- clear.
An onslaught of micro-aggressions, racial stereotypes, racial profiling characterize this second act as disembodied white voices spew inaccurate, ignorant, and offensive — both intentionally and unintentionally. A dance sequence in the first act takes a whole new perspective when commented on by the voices.
The third act hinges on a twist.
The play has a conscientious message, and it delivers it in a unique and aesthetically adventurous way. Brown does a good job in balancing the absurd and realistic elements of the script. The actors maintain the rhythm of the story without missing the more subtle dissonant notes in action. The music choices (Robert Leslie Meek) grounded the world of the family well. Childish Gambino's Redbone can take on a whole more nefarious meaning after experiencing the play.
Sisters catching up while preparing for their mother's birthday dinner.
Photo by Gabriella Nissen
Whether the final act twist satisfies you out of its brilliance or disgusts you due to its brazenness depends on your personal experience of this play.
Brown was correct when he said
that "the audience is [the] final collaborator for this production." However, would Brown have been most accurate if he clarified that the "white" audience is the final collaborator?
After being bombarded with a slew of racial stereotypes of Black moral degeneracy like drug use and financial irresponsibility, the play ends with a twee monologue from Anderson where she says, "I've been trying to talk to You." You, meaning, non-white people.
Really? Could they hear between the egregious blaccent
that the voiceovers would use, Brent II cartoonishly eating
a chicken leg, Thomas' overstated sass, and the constant dancing. To what extent would the blatant stereotyping and racism dull a non-white audience member's ability to engage with the story?
Keisha (Ciara Shabree Anderson) growing more confused as the real and absurd begin to merge.
Photo by by Gabriella Nissen
"If I could tell the story I want to tell us...it would be something like a story about us, by us, for us, only us..." The monologue goes on to show Anderson stumble to share a story that's authentically hers due to the pervasiveness of the white gaze and white expectation. Finally, she settles on a ground-breakingly novel understanding of character where a character should just be a character — free from the gaze of perceiving their lives through race.
Should the playwright have simply written that story with that character, instead of musing upon it? Would this play have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama or the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize in 2019 if she did?
Watching characters devolve into stereotypes and caricatures to indict white people of their complicity in racial violence makes for a beguiling night of theater no matter on which end of the spectrum you fall. Running at 100 minutes with no intermission, this is a production to experience even when you want to close your eyes, tap your heels three times, and think to yourself there's no place like home.
Performances continue through June 17 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sundays at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring Street. For more information, call 832-767-4991 or visit 4thwalltheatreco.com. $17-$53. (Pay what you can performance on Monday June 12.)