A Conversation on Fairview
Daughters of Lorraine Podcast Episode #1
The play begins as any mom-on-the-couch play would, however, slowly but surely, Fairview unravels in an unexpected way, becoming a courageous meditation on race, power, and surveillance.
Jordan Ealey: Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine, a podcast from your friendly neighborhood Black feminists, exploring the legacies and future of Black theatre.
Leticia Ridley: We are your hosts, Leticia Ridley...
Jordan: ...and Jordan Ealey.
Leticia: On this podcast we will discuss Black theatre history.
Jordan: We'll have interviews with Black theatre artists and practitioners...
Leticia: ...and we'll discuss plays by Black playwrights that have our minds buzzing.
Jordan: You don't want to miss this. Stay tuned.
Jordan: Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury premiered at Soho Rep in New York City to astounding critical and commercial acclaim. On April 15th 2019, Fairview was announced as the winner of the 2019 Pulitzer prize for drama. This honor made her only the third Black woman in the awards 102-year history to receive this honor for dramatic literature. Today's episode is dedicated to this provocative and brave piece of theatre where we will discuss Fairview's critical interventions in the American theatre and our experiences watching Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's production of it.
Leticia: The play begins as any mom-on-the-couch play would, however, slowly but surely Fairview unravels in an unexpected way. Becoming a courageous meditation on race, power, and surveillance.
Jordan: Seeing the production at Woolly Mammoth Theater in DC. We seen it twice. We seen the first one at an IDR, which is a dress rehearsal, invited dress, and then we seen the second one closing weekend, Sunday matinee. We love a matinee.
Leticia: That's so weird. I didn't even think about that. We're one of the first audiences to experience it and then we're one of the last audiences to experience it.
Jordan: Probably too many things that were actually not probably going to get to today, but we're going to try to touch home base on many things as possible. So let's talk about a little bit. Let's go act by act. So the play is three acts, but there's no intermission, no runs.
Leticia: I would say it's a tight 75 to 80 minutes, and three acts condensed into that short of time, it's amazing.
Jordan: It's a really well written script, very tight script. And I didn't read the script, but you read the script and I felt as I was sitting in the theatre that this was a well-paced thought out piece of theatre that I was seeing and I never felt like checking my watch. When are we going to leave? It's that captivating.
Leticia: And I think even if you don't necessarily agree with the actions of the play, I think that that still stands, that it is captivating.
Jordan: So I guess this is the part where we should tell our listeners, if you haven't seen the play, if you haven't read the play, if you are planning to see the play and are reading the play and just wanting to experience it for first time, this is probably not the episode for you to listen to. And you might want to catch another one of our episodes. We hope you come back, but we want to let you know now this, you might want to tap out, sis, and listen to something else because we will probably definitely be talking about the content of the play.
Leticia: Yeah, I guess spoiler alert.
Jordan: Spoiler alert.
Leticia: It feels so weird to say that because this is a spoiler. It really sort of defangs everything that happens with the play.
Jordan: And I feel even if you know what happens in the play, I feel like this play has to be experienced. I feel like there's something about the play being experienced while you're in the theatre and/or reading it. I think there's an element, you don't get the full picture until you're in that position. Let's start with act one.
Leticia: Act one, it's pretty much the description of the play that I encountered online, which is that we have a Black family who is getting ready for grandma's 70th birthday and everything keeps going wrong. The record player starts skipping and then the root vegetables aren't ready or the crazy sister comes in and she's on one today. The place sort of starts off with this Raisin in the Sun, Black family drama or even sitcom appeal, which I think is really what they're trying to go for.
Jordan: We walk into the theatre and before anybody says a word, anybody get on stage, any lights up, any of that, we're indoctrinated into the space via the best Black sitcoms. The Good Times theme song. That's So Raven, Sister Sister. Like Proud Family, all the jams. We were in the theatre getting our lives.
[Sister Sister theme song plays.]
Leticia: Back to act one. I had already read the script so when I saw it, I already knew it was going to happen, but when I was first reading the script, there is... the epigraph of the play is from the Black scholar Frantz Fanon’s book, Black Skin, White Masks and the epigraph is “look, a Negro.” If you're unfamiliar with Fanon’s work, it's an often cited and often read book, where Frantz Fanon talking about the conditions of colonized people, specifically looking at Black folks.
His analogy of “look, a Negro” is about how his personal experience with being held into this position of being denigrated for his race, only by just looking at him. And so I found it very interesting because then, Drury, the very first stage directions of the play, following this epigraph is lights up on a Negro. And then we see Beverly, the mother of the family, not quite the matriarch, because the grandma's still around, but the mother of this family getting ready for Beverly's dinner. So that's how everything was ushered into the play. But even still, I didn't expect it to go the way it did. But there's no sort of framing. It's like, here's Fanon, here's lights up on a Negro, and here's just a family drama.
Jordan: You don't get that “look, a Negro” in, in the theatre when you're watching it. You just see Beverly, the mother, come out. You warned me, you were like, girl, just wait till you see this play. And I was like, okay, okay, whatever. So when I first seen the first act, I was like, oh, this is Raisin in the Sun, a nice Black family drama. Which, A Raisin in the Sun is Leticia's favorite play.
Leticia: It is my favorite play. Fight me. I won't hear no noise, it is the best, Lorraine Hansberry.
Jordan: No one’s gonna fight you.
Leticia: Look, this podcast is called Daughters of Lorraine for a reason. Let's just say that.
Jordan: But I didn't have that sort of same framing going into the theatre, so when you had told me that and I was like, what? This seems like a family drama. I'm having a good time. I'm laughing. There's nothing out of the ordinary at this point in the play. The family is really just any typical family regardless of racial signifiers, I would say.
Leticia: A typical Black middle class family. I think that's important. This is not representing all Black families everywhere. This is representing a particular type of Black middle class.
Jordan: I think there's a way that people will overlook the first act. It seems so normalized what's happening that we'd be, okay, let's get to the good stuff in act two in act three where things really start shifting and I would caution us to pause on act one because I think it serves a dramaturgical function within the play to actually seduce us as an audience to sit back, relax. It's so important to what we experience later in the show that Drury is really setting up, this is how the family acts outside of a gaze or an interruption from other folks.
Leticia: Right, exactly and I think it also sets up important information about these characters. Beverly is the high strung housewife, Dalton is the happy go lucky Dad and the aunt, Jasmine is, how do I describe it?
Jordan: I would say she's like the fun loving aunt with no children that you can talk about your deep dark secrets that you can't talk to your mom about.
Leticia: Which is exactly what Keisha does with her whole idea of I may not want to go to college right away. Can you help me usher in that conversation with my Mama? Jasmine is sort of the foil, like she's the fun loving foil to Beverly's high-strung energy. Already we’re brought into this world of this family who is just normal, there's nothing spectacularized about their experience of Blackness. No one is going through all of the sort of things that people expect when they watch a Black family drama.
Even if we're talking about something like Raisin, is that Raisin, though it is the natural world of this family and the Black domestic space, there is something very spectacularized as about the fact of they want to move from this dilapidated apartment to a house in the suburbs and then Walter Lee gambles away all the money and now Beneatha can't go be a doctor and Ruth is pregnant and although it's presenting a normal picture of Black life, it is a sort of meditation on the spectacularized ways that they're experiencing quotidian experiences of Blackness versus, I feel like in the 90s what we got with a lot of these sitcoms was this sort of normalized American Black family. Like you said, not overlooking act one is really important because the break for Keisha happens there.
Jordan: You want to talk about that a little bit? That break?
Leticia: There's this part where Beverly and Jasmine, and Dalton even, join in on this stance where they're talking about Beverly and Jasmine's mother, how she would dress up in this white outfit with gold studs and a golden turban and do this dance on her birthday every year and then while three adults are enjoying each other's company and dancing and remembering this very funny moment, Keisha gets into the spotlight where she talks about, I love my family, but there's something that's quite missing. And that to me is that first signal to the audiences, at the time when I was reading it that there's something different about this narrative and I kept thinking about that when I was watching the play, what is she signaling to? What does she feel? What is it, does she feel someone watching her?
Jordan: Let's talk about the audience factor because, in act two, that's when things get a little fishy and this notion of audience really becomes a central part of the play. So act two, we have reset basically the play, the action on stage that was in act one is repeated, but this time we don't hear the actors speak. Instead there's these voice overs of these four disembodied figures, answering the question of “if you could be any race, what would it be?”
Leticia: I think the interesting thing that happens, which I believe is the directorial choice because I don't remember that being explicitly part of the script, is that the transition between act one and act two, it's completely a blackout on the audience and then there's a kind of storm sound and then like a flash?
Jordan: I thought it was switching the channel to go with the sitcom framing that it had before the play even started like, Oh, we're changing the channel. Or like you have control or someone has control over what they're watching or seeing or looking at.
Leticia: That's true. But I guess if it's not apparent, I think my bigger point of that is, it's sort of signaling to, there's a rupture that happens and even though it's simply changing a channel, which many of us do a lot, it still is this idea of, I feel like it gave a horror aesthetic to the entire production. That it wasn't just changing the channel. There's something that shifts here.
Jordan: Regardless of either changing the channel or this horror aesthetic is. I think that's what Drury is definitely trying to do with signals to the audience, like you said, that there's a shift that's about to happen. Drury mentions that she was reading Simone Browne’s Dark Matters, what essentially looks at the condition of Blackness as a key site through which surveillance is practiced, narrated and resisted. She was talking about how she was thinking about these notions of surveillance.
Leticia: That is so interesting to me and maybe this is a podcast episode for a future episode, the idea of Black playwrights being so informed by these largely theoretical works is something that I feel like is worth exploring at some point in the future. But anyways, I think that the idea of surveillance is something very interesting because we're led to believe that the figures in the second act are white folks and that they are simply watching the episode. Who are these people? I think that's something that I've been questioning since I've both read and saw the play, who are these four white people? Why are they involved with this scene? What are all these ways of looking that Drury is contending with in Fairview?
Jordan: I'm trying to think of my experience with it. Initially I was like, it seems it was a little an unorthodox to me originally watching it and watching the same thing happen and having these voiceovers where they're just seems like they're having conversations and not necessarily from me, them watching didn't come until the moment where Beverly passes out and they said, “Oh, she's about to pass out. She's about to pass out.”
And then we understand that they've actually been watching this family the entire time and what I think is so interesting about that is that they're still able to watch in anonymity. They are, and this a directorial choice, that they are shadows on the wall. There's no specificity to who they are. All we have is their voice in the shadows, which I think is such a brilliant directorial choice. The use of the shadows and the staging with the actual actors on stage with the shadows and how at moments it felt like they were responding to each other and that certain dialogue would sync up to the reactions of the actors on stage. I just thought, so smart; adding such another element to the script.
Leticia: And I want to give reverence to Stevie Walker Webb who was the director of this production because it was directed brilliantly, I would say. And I remember remarking this to you when we saw the invited dress rehearsal of how closely matched it was with the script. But then to take what is happening there and to even put his own spin on it was just absolutely brilliant in so many different ways. And I also was very interested in the way that the silhouettes were used in certain moments when the Black actor is staring, sort of juxtaposed with their silhouette in a diagonal fashion or when a Black actor is talking and the silhouette maybe beside her and then when it gets so much bigger than her on the background. Just amazing. First of all, amazing work directorially and also projections wise and set design. Who did the set design?
Jordan: Misha from University of Maryland. Our stomping grounds.
Leticia: Absolutely amazing work from Misha, I would say.
Jordan: Yeah definitely. So surveillance, we definitely see themes of surveillance, looking, gazing in the second act. I think this really brings us to the final act where stuff hits the fan.
Leticia: So act three, this is when the play really gets into another realm of the world. And this is where most people are writing their think pieces and that's where Fairview gets its notoriety, I would say. So what happens in act three is that we have a convergence of what happens in act one and act two. And so we continue on with the Black family that we've been following along with this entire play.
But slowly but surely the white characters from act two show up in the Black family sit-com. So for example, Suse, who was sort of the white progressive woman who loved Mabel, her Black nanny from back in the day appears as the grandmother. And then we've heard about this brother Tyrone, who is Beverly and Jasmine's brother, and we meet, scare quotes, “Tyrone” when a white man bursts in to, let me clear my throat, wearing this ridiculously loud and tacky outfit and comes into the house with a microphone and a fur coat and says, “When I say hey, you say ho, hey ho” et cetera, et cetera. And he also does that same sort of formulation with the N word.
And so slowly these characters show up in this Black family to where they just cause utter upheaval and chaos to the Black family. There is a point where there's a food fight among the white characters that then turns into violence against the Black characters to the point where they're cowering while the white characters are completely ruining the Black home and their space and everything is just completely demolished and ruined. And then we get this last moment, which is the crux of the play.
Jordan: My favorite part of the play.
Leticia: For sure. Where Keisha, the teenage daughter asks the white character of Suse, “I want to ask you something but I don't know what I want to ask.” And she goes into this monologue about how essentially it's not right that she calls her grandma and that things don't feel right and she wants to do something, something has to be done and she then sort of collapses the fourth wall and she asks the people who identify as white and who are able bodied to come onto the stage, to join her on the stage, to—
Jordan: Not to join her on the stage, to switch places with her and her family.
Leticia: And so what we have is this reversal, this switch that happens where ideally in an ideal world, all the white folks in the audience would come up on the stage and then there are only people of color left in the audience.
Jordan: So when we saw it at the invited dress rehearsal, it was definitely a different experience. Do you think the Leticia?
Leticia: I think it was. I think when we seen it in the invited dress again we're seeing it with theatre folks, people of color, there's people of color there, but white folks are still the majority. And when that moment comes, one, there's a lot of hesitation in both moments besides our good sis, Lindsey Arbar, immediately once it's asked, puts her program down and comes all the way from the balcony to get on stage. But I digress. The IDR folks hesitated a bit and the majority of the white folks get onstage at the IDR, maybe a couple of them are still trickled in between the audience. But to see the empty seats and to see the sort of different spaces and like how minoritized we are in the theatre is such an interesting moment compared to the second time we seen it, where I felt like I didn't get the same space I did the first time because there were so many white people who decided not to go up for whatever reason, where I felt like they were still infringing on this space that Drury was trying to create for us. Us being people of color.
I believe I remarked to you that I was gleeful. I was happy the first time we did it. There was this moment of happiness that, there was a space created. Relief that was created for us in the theatre in a way that I hadn't experienced before. I understood that it was temporary. I understood that after I worked with the theatre, I wouldn't be the same position that I was when I walked in, but there was just something about that moment of reversal that I really appreciated in the show.
Jordan: And the second time that I saw the play, I think both you and I sort of remarked that there this fear, this fear we didn't know what was going to really happen with people who were not theatre artists seeing this play, would they do it, would they go up? And also this, that last monologue for those who may have not read it or heard it, it's a pretty heartbreaking monologue. It's so well written and it's just completely devastating of a monologue. But the second time we saw it, white folks were laughing during the monologue. They were just laughing. They just having a good time. And it makes me wonder if the same effect happened that second time. The first time we saw it, no one clapped at the end of the play.
Jordan: Because there's no curtain call. The family leaves and then the audience, both people of color and white folks, they decide when they want to leave this space.
Leticia: And so the first time no one clapped. The people of color got up and walked out first, along with the actors, the Black actors who left and then the white folks followed and it was a sort of somber moment, I would say, that we all just wanted that to sink in that this just happened, that we all experienced this versus the second time we saw it, people clapped for her and the speech.
Jordan: I think this is like the controversial portion of the play. Oh, you're asking me, white person to do something? What Drury says about the particular moment is that it's a hopeful gesture. It's something that a white audience member can do, it's something active and uncomfortable in this moment to create space for people of color in a space where they're often not given that space. They're always the one on view. They're always the one on display. In order for that type of Blackness to be reproduced, the white characters must enter into that space and that take on this sort of stereotypical Blackness that they deemed to be fit.
Leticia: The thing that gets me about the ending every single time is its asking of its white audiences to invest in collectivity and the way that most white folks are not asked. It's always individual white people being but I'm not like those other white people or I'm not like this white person; this sort of individualism that comes with whiteness in a way that folks of color are often asked to speak on behalf of each other in our communities.
Jordan: To close on this conversation, I wasn’t to ask you one question.
Jordan: What does Fairview do for American theatre?
Leticia: That's a big question. I think what Fairview does for American theatre is that it gives us an example of what theatre could be. I think Drury is setting an example to producers everywhere, to young playwrights, to directors, about what theatre can be, what theatre has the potential to do for folks. Fairview may not be the first to do this sort of project, but it is setting a tone that I think folks need to take up. What about you? What do you think?
Jordan: What I think Fairview does for American theatre. I think it puts American theatre on notice. I think it interrogates American theatre in a way, I don't have to say a way that it's never been interrogated before, but in a way that they cannot deny their part in the white supremacy. Fairview was really pushing us to think about how those white supremacist ideals are still in place and really put makers, creators, producers, theatres on the spot and saying, what are you going to do to dismantle this thing that you've helped create.
Leticia: Please, please go see this play if it's showing anywhere that you are located. Read the play, buy the play at the Theatre Communications Group, TCG, it's on sale. Support Drury's work. I'm so excited that Jordan and I got to talk about Fairview today because it's a play that definitely has been on our minds both times we've talked about it and we continue to have conversations about it and I think it's an important piece of theatre.
Leticia: Before we get out of here, we're going to do our suggested reading list. So this is just reading that if you were interested in any of the things that we talked about today, this is, I'm interested, where can I go to learn more about surveillance? Where can I go to read more plays like this? So this is just a little mini suggested reading lists that we came up with for the folks that are interested in reading more.
Jordan: For some theoretical texts that if you're interested in those sort of things, definitely we want to highlight Simone Browne’s Dark Matters: on the Surveillance of Blackness, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks.
Leticia: Nicole Fleetwood's Troubling Vision. Those are some theoretical texts. What about plays?
Jordan: Why not Trouble in Mind by Alice Childress? I Don't Need to Show You no Stinking Badges by Luis Valdez.
Leticia: I would say The Shipment by Young Jean Lee.
Leticia: So that is our episode today. This has been Daughters of Lorraine. I'm Leticia Ridley.
Jordan: I'm Jordan Ealey. Stay tuned for episode two, where we will be discussing the uncovered history of lynching dramas.