Definition Theatre has launched an incisive, suitably atonal but pitch-perfect Chicago premiere of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Fairview.” The production, under the subversively smart direction of Definition artistic director Tyrone Phillips, keeps leading, relentlessly, to unexpected heights of humor and drama and to the depths of America’s race divides. Much Chicago theater this year has been striving to make the local stage more inclusive. Many of the plays I’ve seen that are historical events and themes related to race have been produced in the usual spaces where audiences tend to be noticeably short of diversity. In the fourth-most racially segregated big city in America, it makes sense to sing where songs were previously unsung. This production, mounted at The Revival, a space in Hyde Park, ups the odds that seats will be filled with an audience that is diverse in many dimensions, but perhaps especially with whites and Blacks. That adds to the punch in Drury’s play. The audience is eventually asked to separate by race—to actually segregate itself in different zones of the theater. It’s an action ultimately meant to stab at standard false and shallow narratives whites use to demonize and degrade Blacks. In other words, the goal is to end the pernicious divide by creating a constructive one.
Before Drury’s play gets there, “Fairview” cycles through several modes. As with her other plays (see our recent review of “We Are Proud to Present…”), the playwright takes on both the conventions of theater and the conventions of racism. “Fairview” begins in the mode of a television situation comedy. It’s set in a standard-issue sitcom family room, adorned with a mix of bland contemporary furniture. There’s an unexceptional abstract painting above a nondescript couch and a smattering of Afro-centric decor a la World Market.
It’s Mama’s birthday. Her adult, strait-laced, OCD daughter, Beverly, dressed in a neat but plain skirt and sweater, needs everything just so. She sits at a table clumsily peeling carrots while wrigglnig to Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday.” When her obliging, strategically docile husband enters, we get the classic sitcom “crazy Aunt So-and-So is coming” moment. And the “What!? You didn’t tell me?!?” to go with it. The unwelcome guest is sister Jasmine, the narcissist. She soon arrives in a leopard top and leather pants and genius for taking offense and rebutting with zingers. The family does come together when they all recreate one of Mama’s dances and move in sync around the room.
The jokes fly, the family tension builds but Drury purposely keeps the stakes so low that by the time she literally freezes and then rewinds the action, the jokes and dancing are all there is to care about, and barely. Don’t be fooled. This is like the warfront Christmas calm before an all-out offensive. Following a short technical break to reset the stage, the action begins again from the start. The Black actors are silent this time, but a group of white characters standing to the side have a spirited, cringingly funny and scary conversation about race. That’s just the beginning of a full deconstruction of the first round. The elements of Ionesco and other classic Absurdists that were strong in Drury’s “We Are Proud to Present…” are again wickedly at work. Edward Albee seems also to loom among her influences. Drury can evoke a mountain of existential despair as well as the rest of them, but she’s also after bigger social stakes as well as the soul of the nation.
Director Phillips has gathered a strong, fearless ensemble cast that handles the humor, the horror and the horror in humor as the play moves from anodyne to landmine. Among the fine bunch are Martasia Jones as the difficult sister that offers the kind of hell on wheels that makes a great character, but a lousy dinner guest and Carley Cornelius as Bets, who is searingly funny and horrifying as a jaded Eastern European of some stripe whose disdain for Americans’ obsessions with race cloaks her own. Jada Jackson, as the family’s youngest member, does a wonderful job showing how hard it is to stay emotionally grounded in a crazy adult world.
“Fairview” Definition Theatre at The Revival, 1160 East 55th, definitiontheatre.org. Through May 22.