The word “Fairview” is the only element of design on the cover of the program. It’s capitalized, printed in black ink and resolutely centered on a milky white background. As type treatments go, this is one of those rare examples of design that’s informed by and perfectly paired with the content it’s meant to express. Deceptively simple, the cover contains the entire DNA of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s astonishing and unpredictable play. The first scene in Fairview (through Nov. 4 at Berkeley Rep) operates under this same principle.
The surfaces of the set all look ordinary and generic. We’ve landed in a suburban housing development plausibly called Fairview, U.S.A. Plausible, that is, except for the fact that the walls, carpet, and sofa have all been scrubbed clean of color. The family that lives there has chosen to decorate the interior with a blank palette of whites only. Beverly (Natalie Venetia Belcon) is the first person on stage. Before her guests arrive, she’s fastidiously trying to put everything in its right place. She’s about to host a birthday party for her mother.
Her husband Dayton (Charles Browning) appears next. He teases and flirts with his wife, encouraging her to relax. Dayton also helps out by tidying up and carrying food and party supplies in and out of the kitchen. Browning delivers his lines fast, the way that actors do on sitcoms, as if he can hear a laugh track cued up to punctuate his jokes. But the actor doesn’t exactly pause for our laughter. He keeps moving forward. Fairview looks and sounds like a TV comedy until the playwright begins to subvert those expectations. That’s why there’s a palpable sense of tension that builds up during this opening scene. The arrival of Beverly’s sister Jasmine (Chantal Jean-Pierre) raises the stakes.
If Beverly was already anxiety-ridden about her carefully mapped-out plan for the evening, Jasmine’s brassy presence pushes her further toward a breakdown. Their relationship is defined by an unspecified and unspoken antagonism. It may be sibling rivalry, a competition for their mother’s affection, or hurt feelings they have yet to hash out. As Jasmine expresses her opinions, it becomes clear that she has purposely been drawn broadly. When Beverly’s and Dayton’s teenage daughter Keisha (Monique A. Robinson) enters the fray, Drury includes a possible turn toward a standard, dramatic conflict — Keisha might be gay. But that, it turns out, is just a red herring.
If you haven’t seen the play, describing anything more will ruin it. Spoilers follow.
When the second scene begins, Drury restarts the play from the beginning. This time the lights on stage have slightly dimmed. The actors are moving their lips and hitting their marks but we can’t hear a word they’re saying. Over the speakers, we hear a conversation that quickly gets heated. Jimbo (Luke Robertson) asks Suze (Brooke Bloom) if she could choose to be any other race, which one would it be? Drury then adds two more characters to this discussion and conjures up a storm of white privilege and overt racism.
And while the vitriol rises in their voices, they also begin to comment on the action taking place on stage, as if they’re at home watching it all on TV. A fictional, scripted world is as close as the members of this ghastly white chorus will ever get to meeting or knowing a black family. Until Drury allows something extraordinary to happen à la The Purple Rose of Cairo. The white characters enter and then take over the black narrative through a combination of theatrical magic and their own will power, i.e. their sense of entitlement. They hurry on stage, hungry for the spotlight, as if they’d somehow managed to escape from the playwright’s imagination. They don’t appear in black face but in black voice, a reverse corollary to the white voice Boots Riley used in his film Sorry to Bother You. When they speak, it’s bizarre and awkward and dramatic dynamite.
Without giving the particulars of the ending away, Drury demolishes every trace of plot and character. During the ensuing narrative chaos, Fairview itself doesn’t disintegrate. It presents a vision of America imploding. The play’s merely reflecting back our nation’s talent for self-destruction.
Fairview, through Nov. 4 at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. $45-$97; 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org