Review: Entertaining, provocative Fairview challenges our racial gaze

Opinion: Fairview is a play about what it feels like to be seen and interpreted through the gaze of racial others.

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When: To Oct. 8
Where: The Cultch Historic Theatre
Tickets & Info: From $29 at www.thecultch.com

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Depending on where you’re standing, ours is either an age of racial reckoning — I’m writing this on Truth and Reconciliation Day — or excessive “wokeness” about race.

In the United States, of course, racial attitudes are radically polarized. Black Lives Matter or hurrah for the end of affirmative action. Is this a dialogue of the deaf? Often there seems to be no dialogue at all.

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The theatre in recent years has provided a lively forum for the dramatization and discussion of race and its discontents, especially as previously under-represented groups have gained greater access to the stage.

Black, Indigenous, Asian and Latinx playwrights, directors, performers and designers have made their voices heard in innovative theatrical ways, some with the express purpose of shocking mainstream audiences into new understandings of racial realities.

American playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Fairview, playing at The Cultch in a co-production from Vancouver’s Search Party and Toronto’s b current Performing Arts, explodes into that category with a series of surprising twists, turns and reversals meant to throw a non-Black audience off its equilibrium.

Co-directed by Mindy Parfitt, a white woman, and Kwaku Okyere, a Black man, Fairview is a play about what it feels like to be seen and interpreted through the gaze of racial others.

The play at first looks like an African American family comedy. On Amir Ofek’s handsome, expansive set, middle-class Beverley (Angela Moore) and husband Dayton (Christopher Bautista) are preparing a birthday dinner for Bev’s offstage mama. Bev’s sassy sister Jasmine (Miranda Edwards) arrives. Lawyer brother Tyrone is going to be late. Teen daughter Keisha (Yasmin D’Oshun) rounds out the guest list.

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fairview cultch
Christopher Bautista stars in Fairview. Photo by Mark Halliday

Bev seems excessively nervous about getting everything just right. While preparing the food, she badgers Dayton, bickers with Jasmine and freaks out over Keisha’s proposal to take a gap year before college. None of this is too serious. Jasmine is particularly funny, and in lighter moments they all dance. Only Keisha seems aware that something is a little off.

Then things turn surreal. The scene repeats itself, except the onstage characters only mouth their dialogue, and we hear a recorded conversation of four other characters who sound as if they are white, discussing the question: If you could be any race, what race would you choose to be? Their ideas are largely banal, and become increasingly idiotic and offensive about what it means to be an “authentic” Black person. Gradually, we become aware that these two men and two women are somehow watching the onstage action. 

Things then turn again in deliriously theatrical ways, which I’m afraid I can’t reveal. Suffice to say that the voice-over actors, Elizabeth Barrett, Julien Galipeau, Nathan Kay and Lucy McNulty, eventually find their way onstage and the family sitcom becomes surreally melodramatic.

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C.S. Fergusson-Vaux’s costumes co-star in this segment, which is just a set-up for the final reversal, overseen by Keisha.

The acting is very strong across the ensemble, as are production values. Kudos to Ruby Singh’s sound design and Marisa Gold’s choreography.

The story this play tells is entertaining and provocative. You may leave the theatre thinking differently about race, or at least about the lenses through which you perceive race. You may also think about theatre in a different way. Who is looking at whom, and what do they/we see?

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