A PopCult Theatre Review

You have three more chances to see The Alban Arts Center production of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer-award-winning play, Fairview. By all means, if you can attend a performance this weekend, you should.

The cast is amazing. Christen Wesley, Norman Branch, Tasha Harris and Rhonda Rogombe take on the challenging roles of The Frasier Family, a normal middle-class Black family preparing to celebrate their matriarch’s birthday. I’ll get into what’s so challenging about these roles below, after a spoiler warning, but every member of the cast does such a terrific job that I could spend the whole review just praising them.

As “The Watchers” we have stunning performances by Kim Waybright, Justin Clark, Clayton Strohmenger and Laura Michele Diener.

I can’t recommend this production of Fairview enough. The Director, Stuart Frazier, has assembled an amazing cast and brought this play to life at The Alban. He’s done a remarkable job with every element of the technical and blocking aspects of this play. Everything, including the set design and costuming is top-level.

Let me pause here for a moment, and do something that I don’t do often in this blog. If you really want to see a spectacular piece of hilarious, thought-provoking experimental theatre, with a very meta edge to it and a very serious message buried within its hilarity, then don’t read this review much further. I deliberately kept myself in the dark about Fairview, and I think It enhanced my enjoyment of this amazing play.

There’s a reason that the preview video The Alban released for this play reminded me of the Adult Swim short, Too Many Cooks.

If my enthusiasm has already convinced you to make your way to The Alban Arts Center this coming weekend to see this play, stop reading now, and you will get the full experience. Tickets are $17 for adults, and $12 for seniors and students. To order tickets, call 304-721-8896 or got to the Alban Arts Center website.

If you need your arm twisted a bit more, read on…

Rogombe, Harris, Branch and Wesley as The Frasier Family

Fairview starts out seeming like a very familiar, if well-done, Black family TV show type of story. In the first act we meet the four main characters and they are all well-established for the audience, Beverly, the mother is preparing a birthday dinner for grandma. Her affectionate husband, Dayton, is trying to help and stay out of the way at the same time. Her gossipy sister, Jasmine, arrives and stirs the pot. Finally, Keisha, the teenaged daughter, appears and is the perfect teen combination of exuberance and exasperation.

At the end of the first act Beverly gets a little overwhelmed, and faints.

Act Two is where the play starts to mess with your mind. We see the cast repeat all the actions from the first act, only in silence. Meanwhile we hear the voices of people watching what’s going on, as if it were a TV show. Eventually four voices are heard, and it’s worth pointing out that all four voices belong to White people.

And they’re pretty vapid and cluless wypipo at that. We hear a lot of really stupid observations about what they think is going on in the play, tempered with an all-too-familiar unconscious level of racism.

We are hearing the voices of characters who could conceivably say, “I’m not racist, but…” We have the woman who swears she isn’t racist because she had a Black nanny when she was a child; The Joe Rogan type who doesn’t seem to care if he sounds racist; The very flamboyant gay guy who isn’t that concerned with much of anything besides himself; Finally we have the immigrant lady from Russia who finds the whole concept of race relations in America confusing.

Keep in mind that while you’re hearing this commentary, the actors on stage are essentially miming their way through the entire first act. While you’re hearing this bizarre commentary, you’re also wondering what is going to happen when the action on stage catches up to where it left off.

What happens is, it keeps going for about ten more minutes with the actors on stage remaining silent while acting out what comes next. Meanwhile, the commentary keeps going on, building a crescendo of obnoxiousness by the minute. At the point where you’re hoping that the disembodied voices will just shut the hell up so you can get back to the story, Act Two ends.

In Act Three, reality goes off the rails as the commentators from Act Two insert themselves into the narrative as the characters who were mentioned, but not seen, in Act One.  The story devolves into clowning and slapstick, and there’s even a food fight.  It’s completely surreal, absurd and hilarious…and by the end you realize the whole point of the play.

Fairview is about what happens when Black people are not allowed to tell their own stories without interference from White people. It’s about how the creative process gets perverted by folks who are clueless to the damage done by their pointless meddling. Hackneyed tropes and stereotypes get shoved into a story by folks who think they’re “improving it” or “making it more commercially viable” by twisting Black stories to fit White expectations. I have to wonder if Sibblies Drury ever spent time in a Hollywood “writer’s room.”

Fairview succeeds because it makes its point in an uproariously hilarious manner, with jokes and insights layered so thick that you really don’t get the full impact of the play until you’ve had a while to think about it and let it sink in.

There’s a killer sight gag about turbans that didn’t hit me until half an hour after I saw the play.

Be warned that there is some audience participation, so if you’d rather not wind up on stage, sit toward the back of the theater. The play ends with a serious point, but it’s one well worth making.

If you are in the Charleston/Huntington area, you really should make your way to see Fairview this weekend. This is the first local theatre production I’ve been to since the start of the pandemic, and it’s an absolutely incredible play, perfectly executed by a very talented director and cast.