The Laboratory Theater of Florida addresses racial issues in its production of Fairview

As a 23-year-old student in Rome, Our Town playwright Thornton Wilder was convinced that people who lived, loved and died hundreds of years ago weren’t all that different from humans because of our universally shared personal moments and lifestyles today. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fairview, Brooklyn-based playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury similarly argues that whites, blacks, and other people of color aren’t all that different either. We just think that we are this way because of ingrained prejudices, prejudices and stereotypes.

To make the first point, Drury introduces her audience to the Frasiers, an upper-middle-class African-American family. They are preparing to celebrate grandma’s birthday. Her daughter Beverly is nervous because she wants everything to be perfect, but honestly she doesn’t get the help and support she expects from her husband, brother, sister and teenage daughter.

Director Brett Marston admits that he directed the first act almost like a sitcom, but it’s actually more akin to a reality show. What happens on stage similarly plays out in white, Hispanic, and Asian households on birthdays and other typical holiday celebrations.

Dayton (Robert Barner), Jasmine (Simone Farrell) and Beverly (Tijuanna Clemmons) in an unseen moment at the birthday celebrations during _Fairview_ of Jackie Sibblies Drury (Photo by Paula Sisk_ Sisk .jpg.png

Paula Sisk, Florida Labor Theater

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Dayton (Robert Barner), Jasmine (Simone Farrell) and Beverly (Tijuanna Clemmons) in an unseen moment at the birthday celebrations during the production of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s “Fairview” at the Laboratory Theater of Florida.

The plot, banter, and repartee is funny, not because it happens to one black family, but because it can and does happen in all families. That’s exactly Drury’s point.

In Act Two, four white colleagues enter their break room while an imaginary break room TV is playing a rerun of the reality show behind them. A guy nicknamed Jimbo asks the other three a philosophical question.

“If you could be any race, any ethnicity you wanted to be, what would it be? You never miss a race. They met Latino. They met Latinx. You met Asians. They met African Americans,” Marston said.

“And audiences are starting to hear the kind of stereotypes and the kind of … negative stereotypes of all these different races.”

Eventually, the white workers notice the TV and start playing bit by bit as the Frasiers prepare for grandmother’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 completely different function. It is employed to mitigate and disarm audiences’ discomfort when hearing overt and implied racism, bias and prejudice spoken out loud in bold, unfiltered tones.

“The humor in Act II comes from the absurdity of the clichés,” Marston said. “So let’s play this one so honestly and so real you’ll laugh because it’s so awkward, because it strikes such a chord of reality, right?”

Deputy Director Makayla Davis agrees. “The humor in the play makes it more digestible for the audience. It allows people to laugh while learning. They laugh at the absurdity, but they also learn,” Davis said.

“‘Okay, that’s really funny, but did I say that myself in my own conversations?’ So the humor takes it a step further from the element of pure comedy and transforms it into something more artistic and artistically humorous.”

In Act Two, Drury confronts the audience with how even the most innocent and harmless acts and remarks are twisted through the lens of racial, class, and gender prejudice. but Drury uses more than mere humor to illustrate this connection. What the Frasiers are now pantomiming on stage actually matches the words pouring out of the mouths of the white employees, a realization Davis came to after hours of analyzing the script.

“I took the scripts of Act One and Act Two and laid them side by side and I just started reading them at the same time and found those lines fit together,” Davis said.

“It adds so much to the story because it shows these people lining up. We’re all really only human, you know? It’s all purposeful. The fact that they say consistent words onstage and offstage shows that we are all equal, but we can choose how we approach other races and how we approach other people.”

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

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

In the third act, the white staff members appear on the birthday party stage, playing the roles of the teenager’s grandmother, brother, and gay friend. Here, the spotlight moves from stereotypes to tropes, with the white characters taking turns blaming the mother, Beverly, for crack, the father, Dayton, for wasting the family’s nest egg on gambling, and Keisha, the teenage daughter be pregnant from it.

Robert Barner, who plays Dayton, gives this insight:

“Whether it’s the media, whether it’s the movies, the first thing you will see or hear is the white way of looking at things. You never get an opposing opinion because the system isn’t designed to give us the first vote,” Barner said.

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

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

Paula Sisk, Florida Labor Theater

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Keisha (Zaria Brown), Beverly (Tijuanna Clemons) and Dayton (Robert Barner) pose for a family photo.

When it comes to race, many of our fears stem from a lack of interaction with people of other races and classes. It’s harder to fall back on stereotypes and tropes when you’ve really gotten to know someone else.

However, the issue of race goes much deeper than unfamiliarity, difference and tribalism. When race has its roots in a flawed belief system, changes must be made to reexamine all of our societal assumptions, and that’s more than most are willing to do, as Tijuanna Clemons (who plays Beverly Frasier) notes.

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

Still, it’s a long overdue endeavor.

“Doing this piece at this point is very timely because it’s not only timely, it’s necessary. There’s so much happening in America right now where race is the focus, even if it’s not said,” Clemons said.

“As well as [Beverly] States, we don’t talk about it. For some reason we shy away from it, but sometimes it’s good to feel uncomfortable in a situation so you can move on, and hopefully this piece will allow us to take another step forward.”

In the end what “Fairview” asks not only for the recognition of the role that biases, prejudices, stereotypes and tropes play in our individual and collective zeitgeist, but for the broader view that we should all have 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? This really is “Fair View”. Having a fair view without the oppression that black people have faced for centuries, if we were all on the same playing field, what would that look like? how would we look That’s what Keisha asks at the end of the play. What if we were all really fair? And I think it’s just a beautiful, beautifully made piece.”

“Fairview” plays August 5-20 at the Laboratory Theater of Florida. You can find game dates and times here.

To read more stories about art in Southwest Florida, visit Tom Hall’s website: SWFL Art in the News.

Spotlight on the Arts for WGCU is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.

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