The Berkeley Rep's 'Fairview' And The Rules Of The Game
Sometimes you see a play and you just want to make up some rules. Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview has certainly garnered a lot of controversy and audiences and critics have been fairly tight-lipped about what actually happens in the Berkley Rep over the course of Drury’s 100-minute dissection of, I guess the best way to put it is, race and perception.
Though what audiences think they’re perceiving and even more complex what the playwright, cast, and producers think audiences are perceiving can’t be kept secret for the simple reason that they’re clearly thinking many different things, acting from different motives, and coming to the theater with radically different experiences. Whether the creators of the “Fairview” situation believe any of that matters is an open question and leads to our first rule: never let the production control your experience; you are free.
And while we’re at it here’s a second rule: surprises don’t matter. If you can’t see what’s coming your way in Fairview, then you aren’t paying attention, and a free audience always pays attention.
So this is what happens in tantalizingly vague terms:
Parody of a late 80’s, early 90’s black sitcom
White commentary on the parody of the late 80’s, early 90’s black sitcom
White infiltration of the parody of the late 80’s, early 90’s black sitcom
Black sitcom talks back.
Which leads to false rule number one: you don’t know anything; your mind is a virgin spring; your soul, lily white; you’ve paid for the pleasure of ignorance and you will remain in that blissful state until you’ve been told—by the proper authorities—to open your eyes and get out of Eden.
That’s the first trap of the evening and you should both enjoy and resist it.
Here’s rule number three: entertain me wildly for fifteen minutes and you can lecture me for five. I don’t like being hectored, pushed around, told what to do, what to love, or that I’m part of this group or that group; I’m just not interested. But entertain me, as Drury does in the third, most fascinating section of Fairview, and you can get more than a little didactic. Why not? Everything demands payment, whether cash, time, or moral obligations.
And the demands of entertainment shouldn’t be otherwise. The moment the play lashes out at the audience, Drury makes explicit an arrangement that tamer, more polite playwrights paper over. When you receive a gift, you should acknowledge the giver. To not recognize that debt, even though what is given is freely given, is to erase what others sacrifice for your comfort, ease, and sense of well-being.
What becomes complex is whether you ever wanted that gift or not, and if not how do you politely say no and go on your way. Must you in some way accept the giver’s terms? Once you buy a ticket, enter the theater, and settle into your seat is there always an implicit and binding relationship to accept everything that’s put before you? Must we always say, thank you? Must we always clap?
The answer appears to be yes until someone says no, though one might ask whether it’s possible for any member of the Fairview audience to say no. And by that I mean all members.
Here is a world in which requests and gifts might be the same.
So let’s get to rule number four: play with fire and fire might play back. Many years ago I saw a one-man show at the Berkeley Rep. I can’t remember the artist, the title, or what it was about. That’s not my fault; they’re basically all the same.
Scattered among the normal Rep audience were high school students on I guess what was a kind of cultural outing to better their way of life or something. The actor on stage (who was also the playwright, because that’s how it works) asked a rhetorical question. A score of kids raised their hands, and three or four shouted out competing answers. The performer was shocked, the audience taken aback, the students raring and ready to go at it with the guy on stage. And then the inevitable shushes for quiet, for nothing befits the theater more than emulating the hushed and reverent silence of the symphony.
The kids were quieted, learned that a rhetorical question means shut up, bitches, and the performance continued. But you and I know that if you stand up in front of an audience and ask a question you should expect an answer, at least in any decent society. If you confront an audience, you should expect that some might confront you back, and possibly for reasons beyond your imagination—playwright, theater, and cast, or Drury, Rep, and Fairview actors.
The imagination is the issue.
But make no mistake about it, Drury catches a fundamental aspect of art and audiences: that we’re always dealing with limits, and assumptions about those limits. Push both into an active confrontation and things can slip out of control.
So here’s rule number five: lines should be crossed, assumptions made and remade—wrest the argument, the confrontation, the most grotesque and thorny problems out of the dark and into the light of day. Once the rules of engagement are established or broken, the gifts offered, accepted, or rejected, know that all bets are off. Chaos doesn’t travel one way.
I’m not quite sure from what I saw that either the play or production believes that—maybe a little, but not fully.
Rule number six: When you have a blunt force problem, you need blunt force art. Or maybe that’s false rule number two. Drury makes a bet in Fairview, that she can absorb a few punches and then punch back harder, a kind of playwriting jiu-jitsu, Ali’s rope-a-dope turned literary.
So by the end of Fairview every audience member must ask, was I entering into some kind of deal when I sat down and watched that parody of a late 80’s, early 90’s black sitcom, or that white commentary on that late 80’s, early 90’s black sitcom, or that invasion of a gang of crazed whites into that late 80’s, early 90’s black sitcom. Drury’s guessing that she’s got you somewhere along the line and that because of that you owe her, owe more than you ever would have imagined when you stepped into the 440-seat Alfred Peet’s theater. Of course, Drury’s imagining something, too, an audience of her own making that every night the real audience must play and become.
And so in a limited fashion, Fairview accomplishes a rare feat in the American theater: here is a theatrical event where the artist and the audience meet in a fantasy about the other. Drury enters tentatively but finishes with a haymaker; the audience enters with some amount of confidence and ends, at least for some of them, in the corner of the ring wondering what happened.
There seems to be some agreement that this might be an appropriate response to an untenable situation, and so is an appropriate way to end the evening, racially that is. But there are some audience members that remain unaccounted for, unmoved, or suddenly blessed with more space than they had at the beginning of the evening. It just goes to show you that not all exchanges are equal, or fair, or subtle, or even smart, but you have to respect Drury’s display of gentle, blunt force.
So rule number seven: maybe artist and audiences should meet more—in a rough and tumble fantasy about the other.
Here’s a side rule, not a full one, but still a rule, let’s call it side rule number one. If you want to find the heart and soul of a play, just ask, what are the best roles? Not the ones with the most lines, or the most scenes, or whose names grace the title, but the best roles, the roles everyone wants to play. Simply put, Jesus Christ or Judas Iscariot.
In Fairview, the best roles are, and it’s not even close, the white ones. This is partly by design. The play begins in a parody of a black sitcom and for the most part the black characters never leave that reality no matter how absurd it gets, whereas the white characters shift wildly and widely through at least three alternate realities: the consumers of the sitcom, the invaders of the sitcom world, the characters they play to accomplish that invasion, and then witnesses to their own limitations and bafflement.
The white characters are a troupe of ill-equipped and poorly trained actors and their journey is a result of one unassailable fact. They are so free that they can’t stop themselves from indulging in their worst instincts, whether those instincts spring from malicious or humanitarian impulses. They just do what they want and it makes them bizarrely fun and alive. They may not be at the core of Drury’s drama, but they are its fuel and who doesn’t want to be fuel.
If I were going to start a major critique of Drury’s play, I’d start there—that fun is a revolutionary force and in the bones of her play she cedes fun to the villains. Of course that’s always the case, just look to our friends Iago, Aaron the Moor, Richard the III, the Joker, Loki, and Erik Kilmonger.
Here’s rule number eight: any play that features a character enamored with Hostel, Eli Roth’s 2005 torture porn masterpiece, is a play begging for us to ask why. This is not a film popular among African-Americans, and certainly not the stick figure, sitcom types here; this is a white film for white boys about wealthy white businessmen paying for the pleasure of torturing and killing tourists in, of all places, Slovakia—Eastern Europe, the darkest, whitest place on earth.
But Hostel is in many ways the key to Drury’s thinking. The disembodied voice of Jimbo—a crude, blowhard of a frat boy high on how down he is with black culture—is mad for one particular scene in the movie. One of the killers, a Dutch businessman and a member of the Elite Hunting Club, becomes so excited with the idea of killing the hero with a chainsaw that he slips and severs his own leg.
In a way that says it all: our most primal wishes will always maim us, and most likely kill us. Well, not always, but fascination is dangerous and revealing. We want to watch, then participate, perhaps even dominate, and then we act and often without thought, especially if we have the money to pay and control the experience. Drury and Roth know that and exploit that; although, that’s just half the equation. The other half is that the watched, the objects of fascination, the prey, have desires, too, and they might have half a mind to strike back if given the chance.
Those desires are at the heart of the Fairview experience and how you assess them, react to them, and act on them is at the heart of the experience. We can see white desire, it’s as clear as the light of the day, but black desire is hidden, quiet, in the dark. When it appears it’s a shock (maybe).
White desires dominate Drury’s vision of blackness; black desire, and it’s important that it’s not plural, gets the last say. White desire is violent schlock; black desire is looking for a place to escape the violence. The one moment of black desire in the production is its most galvanizing. True, it happens in the end (and hinted at half way through), but it’s such a small part of the evening. Though, coming at the end and in the way it does, its effect is outsized.
Side rule number two: Horror is crude, but it gets to the point.
Side rule number three: Moral persuasion must be surgical.
End point number one: There’s going to be no winning here.
Here’s rule number nine: sometimes theater is about our consideration of the audience. In Fairview, the entertainment bites back. And in biting back, the entertainment (or Drury’s vision of it) assumes many qualities about the audience and the most important is that it is divided between black and white, and that black will no longer entertain white. White is consumed with fantasies, white has the chainsaws, white is coming for a home invasion, and that good-ole-staid-sitcom black is going to bite back and make a demand, just one simple demand.
I find it strange that the Berkeley Rep has developed (through their Ground Floor program) and produced Fairview in association with the Soho Rep. No Theater in the Bay Area panders to its audience on the level of the BRT. They have engaged in at least half a decade of questionable producing. Every once and a while they stumble into art (Moliere’s Tartuffe), which makes the situation worse—why peddle junk when you’re capable of so much more? And this is clearly an attack against the audience, both the ones that loyally come to the the Rep and the ethos of theatergoing that comes from such an approach to producing.
Fairview is a different type of attack, and an attack that requires a good deal of the audience to make decisions in the moment about where they’re going to sit or stand. We’re used to thinking of artists as revolutionaries and audiences as the silent masses who just tag along. But there will be no revolution, not even gradual change, without the audience pushing ahead and sometimes past the artists and theaters who serve them. Too often they are expected to accept everything that comes their way, to clap, give money, to mouth the platitudes of the marketing department instead of coming to terms with what they think or feel.
I’m fundamentally for what Drury has attempted in Fairview. There should be more theater like this, not good or bad or great or mediocre, but at least art. We have too much product. It’s terrific that Fairview requires a response from everyone (maybe) in the audience and makes those demands through an understanding of how theater works and with some real artistry. But I’m also fundamentally against audiences getting pushed around. I don’t like it when they’re pandered to and I don’t like it when they’re bullied, or even close to it. And frankly, pandering and bullying aren’t that far apart.
The choices that certain members of the audience have to make at the end of Fairview are, at least to my mind, highly suspect. And on top of that I don’t trust those who make the supposedly right decision anyway, and would advise all those who don’t have to make a choice to be highly suspect of those who shuffle along for the sake of peace of mind.
As every gambler knows, the game is rigged and that the house always wins.
The tenth and final rule of a free audience is to stand for individual belief. You are not a mass audience; you are an individual in the audience, every one of you, and you should act like it, always.
Drury’s script isn’t published and I couldn’t get it from the Rep and so everything is just memory. I couldn’t really fact check.
The first 40 minutes is kind of boring.
But we should never be bothered by boredom; it’s part of the process.
‘Fairview’ runs through November 4 at the Alfred Peet’s Theater in Berkeley. For tickets and information click here.