Since June 17, playgoers have clapped for Jackie Sibblies Drury’s divisive “Fairview” at Soho Rep.
As she stepped into Añejo, a restaurant just down the street from the theater, a table of 20 broke into applause.
Other tables started applauding, too. It must have seemed like the thing to do. Drury, 36, looked pleased and embarrassed and also a little relieved.
“Fairview” begins as an easygoing comedy about a middle-class black family gathering for a birthday dinner and ends somewhere else entirely. A play about race, though not only about race, it includes a series of gestures and invitations that divide the audience. Divide the audience figuratively? Sure. That, too. In The New York Times, Ben Brantley suggested that “Fairview” would have you squirming in your seat. “You will also wind up questioning your basic right to sit there,” he wrote.
The play will run for at least another month, so describing just how it achieves this unease doesn’t seem quite fair. But Drury; the play’s associate director, Garrett Allen; and a couple of the actors were willing to speak about why they are making audiences so uncomfortable and how it feels to rattle them matinee after matinee, night after night.
Drury’s earlier plays, “We Are Proud to Present a Presentation ...” about a group of theatermakers and “Really,” about a photographer’s white mother and black girlfriend, and “Social Creatures,” about well, zombies, were already interested in questions of identity and perception.
“Fairview,” which expands on these questions, began a few years ago when Drury and the play’s director, Sarah Benson, began having conversations about surveillance culture and the place of black bodies in public spaces. (Benson was out of the country and unavailable for an interview.)
Theater is itself a public space of sorts, and Drury wondered what it means for audiences, especially white, middle-class audiences, to consume stories about marginalized communities. She worried that people might exercise their empathy “by going and seeing the show and because you’ve done it there, then there’s no need to change anything about your life,” she said over a hurried glass of wine before she walked over to Añejo.
“Fairview” is purpose-built to offer more of a workout. Sitting down, shutting up, clapping at the end — that’s what most shows demand of an audience. But “Fairview” is different. It rips up that social contract, suggesting that spectatorship might not always be innocent or passive or nice. The piece went “through all these different ideas about different ways to have an audience aware of being watched and watching other people and making judgments,” Drury said.
During spring rehearsals there were many hypothetical conversations about how audiences might respond to the piece and what the actors should do in volatile situations. (Backup is in place in case a confrontation goes too far. It hasn’t yet been needed.)
“There was a general curiosity in terms of how this play would go over,” said Heather Alicia Simms, who plays Beverly. She had never done a play like this. Neither had anyone else in the room. No one knew what to expect.
Now that it has been running for weeks, they still don’t. “It’s never comfortable,” Simms said. Those conversations continue.
When it comes to how an audience handles the play, “there are a billion and one possibilities,” said Allen, the associate director. “Every response is incredibly valid.”
Discomfort doesn’t seem to divide along racial lines. White audience members and audience members who don’t identify as white have enjoyed it. White and nonwhite audience members haven’t. There have been complaints — on Twitter, on Show-Score — that the play went too far and complaints that it didn’t go far enough. (One Show-Score was a paragon of cognitive dissonance: “Ambitious, Great acting, Indulgent, Provocative, Bloated.”)
That’s OK with the playwright. “A lot of people who have been upset by it have also intellectually engaged with it and I don’t know that being upset is wrong,” she said.
Reactions vary widely not only from one performance to another but also within the same performance, which can be jarring. “I think that the play is asking people to realize that their individual responses to the play are theirs alone and that other people are having different responses,” Drury said.
Simms’ sister came to the show, and even though “we grew up in the same house with the same parents,” Simms said, “the way that she understood the play is totally different.”
Sometimes audience members become upset with one another. “I’ve seen people respond to a desire to shift their perspective in an incredibly enthusiastic way to the point that it’s offended other people in the audience,” Drury said.
MaYaa Boateng, an actress who graduated from drama school only last year, interacts with the audience most directly. Many of the more forceful responses have been directed at her, and she understands why some people might have them. The first time she read the script, “I was like: ‘What is going on? This is crazy!'” she said.
Every performance demands new choices, new improvisations. Her scene partner, she said, is the whole room, so the final moments never play the same way twice. She knows that what she says and does will make people uncomfortable and she has embraced that. “People need to be uncomfortable and they need to be shook a little bit,” she said.
She’s been shaken, too. She spent a recent night off at “Othello” at Shakespeare in the Park, grateful for the chance to “see some regular theater, take a break from this show,” she said. (That’s right. “Fairview” is so taxing that Boateng now considers “Othello,” a devastating tragedy of race and sex, relaxing.) Even there, she couldn’t help watching the audience.
“Fairview” seems like the kind of play that would offer talkbacks, but Soho Rep just underwent a pricey renovation to bring it up to code, and talkbacks require more resources. Besides, as Drury said: “In a talkback, it gets very explain-y really fast. People feel the need to ask the artists to explain what the play meant, and that seems really destructive to this idea of asking people to try to take their own meanings from this show.”
So that early dinner at Añejo was probably the closest thing to a talkback that Drury would engage in.
The Añejo party included both Drury’s mother, Pat Sibblies, who is black, and her mother-in-law, Eleanor Drury, who is white. They’d both enjoyed the play, both been moved by it, both found it very funny. “If you asked me if my daughter was funny I would never say that she was funny,” Sibblies said. “It comes out in her writing.”
And still they had different responses.
“I will be very honest,” the elder Drury said. “I’ve never thought about the power that white people have to create a space and then to expect people of other races to exist in that space comfortably,” she said.
“It’s there,” Sibblies said. “What can I say?”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.