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Laboratory Theater of Florida tackles issues of race in its production of the play “Fairview”

Fairview show graphic.jpg.png
Courtesy of Laboratory Theater of Florida
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As a 23-year-old studying in Rome, “Our Town” playwright Thornton Wilder became convinced that because of our universally-shared personal moments and lifestyles, people who lived, loved, and died hundreds of years ago were really not all that different than people today. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Fairview,” Brooklyn-based playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury similarly argues that white, black and other people of color are not all that different from each either. We only think we are because of ingrained biases, prejudices, and stereotypes.

To make the first point, Drury introduces her audiences to the Frasiers, an upper middle class African American family. They’re preparing to celebrate grandmama’s birthday. Her daughter, Beverly, is on edge because she wants everything to be perfect, but, frankly she’s not getting the help and support she wants and expects from her husband, brother, sister and teenaged daughter.

Director Brett Marston admits that he staged Act One almost as a sitcom, but it is actually more akin to a reality show. What’s happening on stage plays out in much the same way in white, Latino and Asian households on birthdays, and during other typical holiday celebrations.

Dayton (Robert Barner), Jasmine (Simone Farrell), and Beverly (Tijuanna Clemmons) in an unguarded moment at the birthday festivities during _Fairview_ by Jackie Sibblies Drury (Photo provided by Paula Sisk_ Sisk .jpg.png
Paula Sisk, Laboratory Theater of Florida
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Dayton (Robert Barner), Jasmine (Simone Farrell), and Beverly (Tijuanna Clemmons) in an unguarded moment at the birthday festivities during the Laboratory Theater of Florida's production of "Fairview" by Jackie Sibblies Drury.

The action, banter and repartee are funny, not because it’s happening to a Black family, but because it can and does happen in all families. This precisely Drury’s point.

In Act Two, four white co-workers enter their break room while a rerun of the reality show plays out behind them on an imaginary break-room TV. A guy nicknamed Jimbo poses a philosophical question to the other three.

“If you could be a race, any ethnicity that you wanted to be, what would it be? They don’t miss any race. They hit Latino. They hit Latinx. They hit Asians. They hit African-Americans,” said Marston.

“And the audience starts to hear kind of the stereotypical and the kind of…negative stereotypes of all these different races.”

Eventually, the white workers notice the TV and start doing a play-by-play as the Frasiers prepare for grandmama’s birthday party. Virtually every stereotype ever uttered is pulled out, dusted off, and applied to the Frasiers. The laughter continues, but now the humor has a much different function. It’s employed to temper and disarm the audience’s discomfort in hearing overt and implicit racist, bias, and prejudice spoken out loud in brash, unfiltered tones.

“The humor in Act Two comes from the absurdity of the stereotypes,” said Marston. “So we’re playing those so honestly and so real you’re gonna laugh because it’s so uncomfortable because it strikes such a chord of reality, right?”

Assistant Director Makayla Davis agrees. “The humor in the play, it does make it more digestible for audiences. It allows people to laugh while learning. They’re laughing at the absurdity, but they’re also learning,” said Davis.

“’Okay, so this is really funny, but have I said this myself in my own conversations?’ So, the humor takes it a step further from the element of just comedy and turns it into something more artistic and something more artistically humorous.”

With Act Two, Drury makes the audience confront how even the most innocent and innocuous acts and remarks are twisted by the lens of racial, class and gender bias. but Drury uses more than mere humor to illustrate this connection. What the Frasiers are now pantomiming on stage actually matches up with the words spewing from the mouths of the white employees, an insight that came to Davis after hours of analysis of the script.

“I took the scripts from Act One and Act Two and laid them side by side and I just started reading them at the same time and realizing that these lines were matching up,” said Davis.

“It adds to the story so much because it’s showing that these people are lining up. We’re all really just people, you know? It’s all purposeful. The fact that they are saying words on stage and off stage that are matching up is showing that we’re all the same, but we can choose how we want to approach other races and how we want to approach other people.”

In this act, a worker named Suze says that everyone’s racist to some degree or another. Yet, she doesn’t recognize that she’s just as guilty of racial bias as her blatant antagonist, Jimbo. Suze is played by actress Nova Rae who notes her character’s white savior complex.

“Jimbo makes a statement about like, you know, when he’s accused of wanting to say the ‘n’ word, he’s like ‘Well, I’d say it now if I wanted to, but she’d (Suze) roll over in her grave before saying anything like that,’ and she does, yes, believe that she’s superior to him because she has that awareness of political correctness and what she perceives as being open-minded and accepting and tolerant, but she perceives people of the Black community as needing to be rescued, needing to be taught very basic life skills and that she would be the person to be able to do that and she does not realize that is very, very racist – maybe covertly racist, but a very racist thing to say,” said Rae.

In Act Three, the white co-workers appear on stage at the birthday party, playing the roles of the grandmother, brother and the teen’s gay girlfriend. Here, the spotlight moves from stereotypes to tropes, with the white characters taking turns accusing the mom, Beverly, of being on crack, the dad, Dayton of squandering the family nest egg as a result of gambling and Keisha, the teenaged daughter, of being pregnant.

Robert Barner, who plays Dayton, provides this insight:

“Whether it be the media, whether it be the movies, the first thing you will see or hear is the white view of things. You never get an opposing view at all because the system is not built to give us the first voice,” said Barner.

“So, when the news narrative comes on or a crime or something happens, like one of the characters in this show says, it must be drugs. It’s a common story. It’s so common that it didn’t seem out of character for someone to say, ‘Well it’s drugs or it’s gambling,’ or all of the vices that people have that they try to hide. They tell you, they dictate as to what the next thing they stereotypically think is the issue with this family, and it really is just a family trying to have a dinner for a matriarch.”

(L-R) Keisha (Zaria Brown), Beverly (Tijuanna Clemons), and Dayton (Robert Barner) pose for a family photo. Fairview opens Aug. 5th at The Laboratory Theater of Florida. (Photo provided by Paula Sisk _ Sisk Media.jpg.png
Paula Sisk, Laboratory Theater of Florida
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Keisha (Zaria Brown), Beverly (Tijuanna Clemons), and Dayton (Robert Barner) pose for a family photo.

When it comes to race, a lot of our fears emanate from a lack of interactions with people from other races and classes. It’s harder to resort to stereotypes and tropes once you’ve really gotten to know someone else.

However, the subject of race runs much deeper than a lack of familiarity, otherism and tribalism. If race has its roots in a flawed belief system, making changes entails re-examining all of our societal assumptions and that’s more than most are willing to do, as Tijuanna Clemons ( who plays Beverly Frasier) remarks.

“So really the biggest fear, regardless of the specific topic, is the fear of change. Any time that we need to make a change from what we are currently doing, what we know, that’s the root of it. Fear of change, that’s the root of it.”

Yet, it’s an endeavor long overdue.

“Doing this play at this time is very timely because it is not only timely, it is necessary. There is so much that is going on in America right now where race is at the center of it even if it’s not said,” said Clemons.

“So, as [Beverly] states, we don’t talk about it. For whatever reason, we choose to shy away from it, but sometimes it’s good to be uncomfortable in a situation so that you can move forward, and hopefully this play will allow us to take another step forward.”

In the end, what “Fairview” asks is not just recognition of the role that bias, prejudice, stereotypes and tropes play in our individual and collective zeitgeist, but the larger view that we should all be given and occupy a level playing field.

“If everything were fair, if everything were on the same playing field, how could we look at life?” asks Makayla Davis.

“How would things be different? That’s really ‘Fairview.’ Having a fair view without the oppression that Blacks have had to face for centuries if we were all on the same playing field, what would that look like? What would we look like? That’s what Keisha asks at the end of the play. What would it look like if we were all actually truly fair? And I think it’s just a beautifully, beautifully done piece.”

“Fairview” plays at the Laboratory Theater of Florida Aug. 5-20. Go here for play dates and times.

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.

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