Review: Powerful ‘Fairview’ at Berkeley Rep asks for truth

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Keisha (Monique Robinson, center) expresses the joy of her youth as her mother Beverly (Natalie Venetia Belcon) and father Dayton (Charles Browning), Monique Robinson (Keisha), and Charles Browning (Dayton) dance their stresses away in the world premiere of Jackie Sibblies Drury production of “Fairview,” through Nov. 4th in Berkeley. (Kevin Berne photo)

If you could be another race, what would you be?

Well, it seems like it would be pretty cool to be Black. But not like, rich and educated Black, because that would be less authentic. Asian would be nice, except for all those expectations and stress. And hey, being Latin would be awesome, because there’s that whole spicy factor.

As you sit and listen to voices share this question and provide these very answers, what jumps out is the racism that oozes freely from the hidden voyeurs observing a Black family as if watching through a glass. At some point, as the specific points are raised, which are only funny because of their absurdity, what is so engaging is also very damn terrifying.

“Fairview” is a play that does not leave your side. What you witness is jarring not because of its ability to shock, but its ability to shock with such a gentle hand. It’s the ugly racism in that, “I can’t be racist because I vote for Obama” kind of racism.  Berkeley Repertory Theatre, in association with Soho Rep, presents a world premiere that is piercing, penned with disgusting beauty by marvel Jackie Sibblies Drury, directed with deliciously powerful and chaotic strokes by Sarah Benson.

I have no desire to take away any surprises, because as someone who knew very little about the play, the two very different scenarios presented were thrilling and disconcerting. Both of those scenarios involve the same plotline. There’s Beverly (a powerful Natalie Venetia Belcon), who jams hard on Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair,” a song that never seems to stop playing (Side note – come early for the preshow music – some sweet jams are poppin’). She clearly maintains the hell out of a house that could not be any whiter even if Lawrence Welk showed up with TWO bubble machines. There is certainly an urgency, because it’s grandma’s birthday, and everything has got to be perfect. And Beverly has no time for her family’s nonsense.

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Beverly (Belcon, left) and her sister Jasmine (Chantal Jean-Pierre) share their disagreements. (Kevin Berne photo)

In steps in her husband Dayton (slick and strong Charles Browning), whose function is to disrupt Beverly as she gets things ready. Some heavy flirting is in order, but right now, Beverly isn’t having any of it. She’s got a million carrots to shred, a dessert to whip up, and a clean house to make cleaner, beer bottles in the plants be damned. If he can just focus on getting the veggie order correct, that would be great.

There are two more characters that enter the fray before all hell truly breaks loose. You have Jasmine (a fantastic Chantal Jean-Pierre) the sassy sister, who comes in vibing in the Willona Woods way. You may remember Willona from Good Times, yes? Well here, Jasmine has plenty to say, sight gags which help her say it, and gives us plenty of laughs along the way. The character also gets some sharp critique from a group of pundits, who feel like they’ve seen her character plenty of times before.

And then you have the young Keisha (a moving portrayal from Monique Robinson). She flies into the room from school with boundless, youthful energy, spitting out issues like college, the apathy of her basketball team, and her school stresses, all while shooting off texts and snapchats in rapid fire succession.

On the surface, this looks like a normal, chaotic day in the life of a family preparing a party. But something is off. Keisha acknowledges as much. And it starts with the brilliant set design by Mimi Lien, who creates not only the thunderously white living and dining room, but the viewing vessel through which our eyes experience the action. It is less theatre set and more aquarium exhibit, constantly keeping the audience out of its reach. Until it doesn’t.

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Beverly (Belcon) and Dayton (Browning) share a tender moment. (Kevin Berne photo)

The final third of the 100-minute intermission-less play cascades into chaos, so powerful, so offensive, built from a constant representation of what is believed to be Black culture, with some wild and hilarious twists. There are massively huge amounts of food for dinner, with every animal squeezed onto the table, a cousin who raps, and a dissatisfied grandmother who shares her stories of struggle.

The power of this piece and the tears become very real soon after. Again, no spoilers here, but the brilliance of Drury’s construction, which is thoroughly challenging and beautifully Brechtian put myself and other people of color in close proximity to each other. What are our stories? Who gets to tell them? Does every story that belongs to people of color need to start with a struggle? Drury, with her push against conventional narrative and form, just might have created the next great American play.

Living in a world where Miss Saigon is passed off as an authentic and powerful story of a Vietnamese girl and the white man who tried to save her is bullshit. Of the millions of beautiful stories that are out there that belong to women and people of color, that’s what we are going with? Really? It’s one example of many where agency and truth are swiped away by people who have not lived in these worlds, but feel compelled to share their thoughts anyway.

That needs to end. It’s our voice. And our turn.

What other race would you want to be? The one you are is perfect.

Please, tell us your truth. Jackie Sibblies Drury just told us hers.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre, with Soho Rep, presents “Fairview”
Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury
Directed by Sarah Benson
The Word: A sharp and biting, commentary on race, examining closely the power of the story and who has the right to create a narrative.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Berkeley Rep Peet’s Theatre
2025 Addison St., Berkeley, CA
Tickets range from $30 – $97
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

 

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