sat 05/12/2020

Fairview, Young Vic review - questioning the assumptions of race | reviews, news & interviews

Fairview, Young Vic review - questioning the assumptions of race

Fairview, Young Vic review - questioning the assumptions of race

New American drama directs a rapier wit at black stereotypes

Family dance: from left, Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Rhashan Stone, Nicola HughesImages - Marc Brenner

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview comes to the Young Vic with the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama under its belt, and a reputation for putting audiences on their mettle through a build-up of theatrical sur

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview comes to the Young Vic with the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Drama under its belt, and a reputation for putting audiences on their mettle through a build-up of theatrical surprises that culminate in a denouement about which the playwright has urged all who have seen the play to keep silent. It certainly delivers a final act that places viewers in a theatrical position that they have probably never experienced before, one that will prompt reflection long after the impassioned note on which the play's frenetic 90 minutes conclude.

The result is ingenious in every way, a self-referential consideration of that driving issue of American drama, and society itself – race. The standard theatrical expectations of a conventional comedy first act – a family drama that proceeds along traditional lines of preparations for an anniversary gathering – are literally pulled away from under the audience’s feet as Sibblies Drury exposes the assumptions that lie behind the form. She has clearly absorbed all the stereotypes, drawn principally from television, the sitcom especially, of representation of black family life to cut away at them with a rapier-like wit, one that unnerves in its manipulation of “meta” allusions far more than it makes us laugh in any conventional sense (though it does that, too).

It’s as if they are re-enacting their own drama, this time as marionettes

Designer Tom Sutt offers a plush living-room set, all soft colours, artfully arranged cushions and vases of flowers, that clearly indicates prosperity. Beverly (Nicola Hughes) is preparing for her mother’s birthday celebration, while husband Dayton (Rhashan Stone) helps out – though the joshing dynamics of their relationship means that on occasions he’s almost teasing her, possibly to calm her nerves: Beverly certainly seems to have left preparations rather to the last minute.

The ring of the doorbell makes that tardiness clear, heralding the arrival of Beverly’s sister Jasmine (Naana Agyei-Ampadu). Dayton seems rather nonplussed that she’s been asked at all, since Jasmine obviously has a way of getting under her sibling’s skin, as the scene that follows shows: Jasmine strutts the stage in a way that articulates her self-centredness, displaying a knack for finding just the phrase or gesture guaranteed to niggle her target. It’s a sister-to-sister stand-off that Sibblies Drury writes very well in a set-piece sort of way, just as she has earlier given Beverly some very long speeches in her banter with her husband. The final (official, at least) arrival on the scene is teenage Keisha (Donna Banya, playing with a confidence that goes beyond her years), who’s clearly close to her aunt, and not above manipulating an already fraught family dynamic for her own ends.FAIRVIEW Donna BanyaSo far, we think, so conventional. Very conventional indeed, in fact, until the realisation kicks in that Sibblies Drury has been treating her setting with far more of an element of ironic hyper-realism than any more conventional version of that form. We’re forced to question how we expect an affluent black American family to behave, how much their world is drawn from established representations, right down to the family dance numbers (main picture). Indeed, what do we expect of an affluent black American family, when the portrayal of black identity seems defined by the equation articulated later in the play thatreal black equals poor black”? (The exceptions, from the worlds of sports or music, prove that rule.)

The unexpected turn that Act II takes brings such issues into the open. To maintain any element of surprise, it’s enough to say that we witness an observational commentary that gives an entirely new context to what we have just seen. As that initial action is reprised, almost in fast-forward, a different set of voices, derived from a very different world, starts up; the skill, almost of mime, of the opening quartet is considerable, one particular effect – by which they seem on occasions to be articulating that over-voice text as their own – being especially striking. It’s as if they are re-enacting their own drama, this time as marionettes, a manipulation crucially accented by our presumption of who exactly is doing the manipulating.   

Sibblies Drury’s ambitiously referential text merits being considered alongside another recent work of black American drama, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's An Octoroon. That work used the device of melodrama to convey its message, and both playwrights prove extremely agile in their wit: they catch us up in the ingenuity of their dramatic structures, which in some ways threaten to dwarf the human experiences that we see on stage.

That’s a qualification that Fairview answers resoundingly in its final act, however, the combination of varying registers handled by director Nadia Latif with aplomb throughout. Donna Banya’s Keisha (pictured above) delivers closing duties with all the bravado of one of Dickens’s urgent protagonists tugging at society's heart-strings as they appeal for an adjustment in the way the world works. It's a rollicking breaking of the fourth wall that evinces an empathy all the more powerful for the artifice that has come before.

Donna Banya’s Keisha delivers closing duties with all the bravado of one of Dickens’s urgent protagonists tugging at society's heart-strings

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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