As the play closes in New York — the last performance is on Aug. 11 at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn — and gets set to play in London at the Young Vic theater and most likely beyond, a conversation about its exploration of black life and the white gaze can take place in earnest.
“Fairview” concerns a “regular” middle-class black family seen in increasingly surreal ways. First they seem to be part of a sitcom, then the object of commentary by unseen white voices. Finally Drury has the teenage daughter of the family, Keisha, step out of the story to ask white audience members to switch places with the black cast onstage.
“Could I tell them that those seats are not theirs, even though they paid for them?” Keisha wonders aloud. “That no one can own a seat forever? That no one should?”
So: Spoiler spoiled. But it turns out that the play still poses a problem — or an opportunity. In a cultural medium whose producers, audiences and critics are still predominantly white, “Fairview” challenges playgoers to think about how the different backgrounds and assumptions they bring to the theater may produce vastly different results once inside.
With so many black playwrights writing so passionately about these questions right now, the “Fairview” challenge was too important to pass up. Salamishah Tillet, a professor of African-American studies and creative writing at Rutgers University-Newark and a frequent contributor to The New York Times, and Jesse Green, the co-chief theater critic for The Times, sat down for a conversation.
Jesse Green: Let’s start with our experiences at the end of “Fairview”: mine as a self-identified white man —
Salamishah Tillet: And mine as a self-proclaimed black woman. I guess we have to talk about the ending.
Green: How did it go down for you in the audience?
Tillet: Once Keisha invited the white audience members to come onstage, I was shocked and I wondered “Why are they going up there?” I assume that the play thought it was creating a safe space for the people of color who remained in the audience.
Green: My audience seemed to be about 90% white.
Tillet: Mine as well.
Green: I was originally afraid to go onstage because I just don’t feel comfortable with audience participation and theater that picks me out to dance or do things. But that’s not what happened. Once onstage, we were left to our own devices, ignored. And the lights were so bright on us that I couldn’t see what was going on in the audience. Nor could I hear Keisha very well as she spoke to those who remained seated. That’s when I realized that far from being picked out as an individual, I was being treated as part of a group. A white group. Ah, I thought: Not everything is about us. I realized that was the point.
Tillet: That’s so interesting. I didn’t feel like I actually stayed with watching the white people onstage for that long. Of course, their procession to the stage was quite a spectacle. But I thought the gaze quickly turned back on me as a black person, and the white audience was suddenly listening to this one-sided conversation between a black actress and the people of color in the audience. I actually felt like I was a “prop” who suddenly had to perform racial solidarity in that moment and was under more scrutiny in the end that I was in the beginning.
Green: It sounds like you had the experience of still being the subject of white gaze, whereas I and maybe the other white folks onstage had the experience of being completely left out of the proceedings. Was there something on your side of the proscenium that you could have gotten from the play without that device?
Tillet: I thought the second act when the black actors were onstage while the white actors were offstage doing voice overs and played the game, “If you could choose to be any race, what race would you be?” was really illuminating. I’ve never played that game, but noticed a lot of the people around me stopped laughing, got really quiet, and saw themselves in that conversation. But, I was really moved by then the scene right before the ending and when the fourth wall was finally broken. It was a stunning representation of the violent schizophrenia of American racism. If the play ended with that lack of closure, it would have been jarring but it offered no absolution, no purging of white guilt.
Green: What’s the word you used? Absolution? To the white audience by giving them a little chore to do?
Green: I didn’t feel absolved of anything and I can’t speak for others but I definitely felt that I ought to do what this black playwright wanted me to do. Because, God knows, white people have been telling black people what to do for so long, especially in the theater. And what’s the harm to me, really? It pushed me outside of my comfort zone but I trusted that she had something she wanted to show me, as a white person, that was worth seeing. But that’s where the hard question comes in. Who is the play really for? Would “Fairview” even work if 90% of the audience were of color?
Tillet: In an interview with Vogue, Drury said, “This play couldn’t happen for an audience that was entirely people of color.” So, it would not work with if the audience’s racial demographics were reversed. I saw “Fairview” while the House hearings on reparations were going on. In that context, I thought the play did a good job of spotlighting the white gaze, but it was less effective in decentering white privilege. White people were put under the microscope for a few minutes, but how did that help them actually relinquish their power when they leave the theater?
Green: I’m really interested in your question about absolution because although I doubt black playwrights at the vanguard of this wave of great new plays are very interested in granting absolution to anybody, there’s a big difference between what they write and what audiences do with what they write. I’m sure some white people can see “Fairview” and feel no shame or guilt. Not me. Racism has been part of theater, part of entertainment history for a shockingly long time. I mean we still had blackface Othellos quite recently. Was I personally involved in those decisions? No. But I think if you’re a sensitive person you feel guilt by association. Or at least the need to acknowledge that bad things have been done in ways you may have profited from. I feel that way about lots of issues, not just racism. But racism especially.
Of course, hearing myself say all that, I worry about the desire to “virtue signal,” to say “Oh look, I’ve done something good because I went to this play and was momentarily uncomfortable.” Or, as a critic, to say I’ve done something good because I’ve written a positive review. Perhaps that’s unavoidable, but if I respond so strongly to “Fairview” or, to name another, “Slave Play,” I think it’s because my taste and my self-image come together when confronted by a powerful playwright who wants to push me around. I feel that way about Shakespeare, too. Or Suzan-Lori Parks. So absolution, yes, I can’t get around it; these plays may soothe liberal guilt, even while engaging it. But is that so different from what all theater does when it engages and gives expression to emotions and leaves you lighter from that encounter?
Tillet: Yes, that’s Aristotle’s “catharsis” thesis in “Poetics.” But, I also think we should remember the earlier black plays that marked whiteness but to different ends. Set in a New York City subway in 1964, Amiri Baraka’s “The Dutchman” is all about the Manichaean struggle between the black male character, Clay, and the white female character Lula. The moment Clay asserts his agency and tries to exit their racial melodrama, Lula delivers a fatal blow, only to restart her homicidal cycle with another unsuspecting black man. James Baldwin once had separate entrances for black and white audiences for his 1964 play inspired by Emmett Till’s murder, “Blues for Mister Charlie.” And Douglas Turner Ward’s “Day of Absence” from 1965 is about the day when all the black people suddenly disappear from their Jim Crow Southern town. The white people do not know how to function, take care of their children, govern each other or simply exist. It’s a play about whiteness cast with all black actors. Since “Fairview” actually had white actors play white people who were pretending to be black, I found it noteworthy that new plays, like “A Strange Loop” by Michael R. Jackson and “Toni Stone” by Lydia R. Diamond do that too: critique the white gaze but cast only black actors.
Green: What I felt was going on in those two plays you mention is that the playwrights, using the techniques of the theater, were giving power back to black people that racism had stolen. They could own the experience and then drop it; they were in charge. I found that powerful.
Tillet: They beg the question: Can you really show the trauma of racism when you have a black actor play the racist white character? I think you can. There’s a scene in “A Strange Loop” when Usher, the main character, goes uptown to engage in a consensual sexual relationship with a white man that is based on racial dominance. It was heart wrenching and spectacular at once.
Green: One thing these plays are teaching me is that our experiences, even if they are relatable, are not symmetrical. The black gaze on white people means something different than the white gaze on black people. And I suppose what I feel in moments like the one you describe is that I don’t really need more information from white playwrights about what they imagine black life to be. But I am happy to see what black playwrights think white life is.
Tillet: I’m most compelled by plays that have both a interracial and intraracial critique or others that do not care about the white gaze but rather how black people see each other. Plays like “A Strange Loop,” “Toni Stone,” Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy” and even the recent revival of Lynn Nottage’s “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” all show black people’s inner lives to varying degrees. When I saw Donja Love’s “Sugar in Our Wounds” last year, I was amazed. I had never seen a coming-of-age story set in slavery about black queer men before.
Green: In that play Love wrote as if everybody either knew what the black characters were talking about, or if they didn’t know they were on their own. White plays have done that forever.
Tillet: It is also a way decentering the white gaze without reifying the white audience. That’s just a different strategy.
Green: It’s fine to say: That was not written for me. It wasn’t written against me either. That’s a quality I like in a play, whatever it’s about. I want it to be more interested in itself than it is in me. Another good example is Aziza Barnes’ “BLKS,” about three black women roommates in their 20s in Brooklyn who go out for a night on the town. There’s racism implied in it, but it’s mostly offstage, and these women have other things (often sex) on their minds. And why shouldn’t they? It’s as if the playwright is saying, if you’re not interested in these women’s lives as they experience them, then I have nothing for you. It is indifferent to the white gaze. Honestly, it’s a relief.
Tillet: If you decenter the white gaze, what different dynamic stories will we see? Toni Morrison has said, “I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.” I thought of that with “Toni Stone,” about the first woman to play in professional baseball, in the Negro Leagues. It was trying to deal with the white gaze in theater and 1950s baseball. But, it was also about sexism she was dealing with at home and on her team; racism was not the only oppressive force in her life.
Green: I loved that the top note in “Toni Stone” was the character’s own passion — as an individual, not as a representative of her race or gender. So I was surprised to read that others, including black critics, criticized it for privileging the white audience over the black one. So let me just ask you, can white critics helpfully write about these plays?
Tillet: Yes, of course you can write about and review these plays sensitively. But, the bigger question is why there are so few black theater critics in mainstream publications that have the power to make or break a show’s run or black playwright’s career?
Green: I have my theories, if no evidence. But here’s another example of why it’s important. The most scathing review of Suzan-Lori Parks’ “White Noise,” which was about a contemporary black man who agrees to become his white best friend’s slave, came from a prominent black critic, Hilton Als of The New Yorker. He wrote that the play “hadn’t been written from within blackness.” Even if I agreed, I could never say such a thing — nor, I submit, ever know it. It speaks to the necessity of having other voices. But I’m really asking a different question since I’m not actually going to quit my job. What I’m really asking is: Can a white critic even “see” these plays properly?
Tillet: Why would you not be able to see it? You’re pulling from your different experiences and different histories. But you also might miss a lot of things, too, which could affect your read and, of course, your review. Like in “A Strange Loop,” Jackson satirizes sacrosanct cultural icons like Zora Neale Hurston and Whitney Houston, black-cast Broadway hits like “The Lion King” and “The Color Purple,” and Tyler Perry’s urban theater. All of these, especially Perry’s “circuit” plays have provoked contentious debates among black people about access, representation, caricature, which are all big parts of the metalanguage of Jackson’s play. But my main concern is that the critical voices of white writers are considered more important than those of people of color. That simply does not make sense. In this groundbreaking moment in black art and culture, it is cultural malpractice to have so few critics of color weighing in with their interpretations and insights.
Green: What I’m really learning most from our conversation is the way in which thinking a lot about the white gaze can also be a distorting element within the plays. Which raises a more fundamental question: In making a play whose subject is the white gaze, are you turning the power of the play back to the very people you’re trying to get it away from?
Tillet: I know white people who went to “Fairview” and felt like they were being held accountable but also did not realize how much they remained at its center of attention. It is true, however, that I didn’t feel disempowered when I left “Fairview.” A group of us black people found our way to each other and stayed afterward to talk about what we experienced. The only other group near us was the mainly black cast members. So, in the end, who actually felt comfortable? Who felt like they owned that space? In that sense Drury achieved her goal. I actually felt comfortable talking about what I just saw while a lot of the white audience members seemed to be rushing home to process what just happened in the privacy of their homes and not under the hot stage lights.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.