In Review

Fairview, Young Vic review: a daring, disarming play

Jackie Sibblies Drury's controversial, Pulitzer Prize-winning show comes to the UK

Billed frequently as the year’s most controversial play, Fairview does not disappoint. Jackie Sibblies Drury won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama this year for her fascinating dissection of race in America and how it is portrayed on stage. Taking it on for the Young Vic, Nadia Latif has made sure the show plays to a British audience, while maintaining its visceral punch.

The slight trouble with Fairview is that there is very little that can be revealed about it without spoiling the show. The spoilers are not so much about plot; there is very little plot in the tradition sense. But, since the play comes in three acts, between each of which there are massive, unexpected turns, it’s hard to avoid the big reveals.

It kicks off, as hundreds of other shows before it have, with a wealthy, in this case African American, family gathering for dinner for an important occasion. It’s Grandma’s birthday, and we meet Beverly (Nicola Hughes), who has invited everyone to her rather grand home, and is on the verge of a meltdown at the thought of her dinner not going to plan. Her husband, Dayton (Rhashan Stone), is forever joking, easing the tension, and doing everything in his power to calm her down. They have an over-achieving daughter, Keisha (Donna Banya), and are expecting Beverly’s troublesome sister (Naana Agyei-Ampadu) and brother, who is late, to dinner.

The first act of the play consists of the family bustling around and squabbling. The style, though, is uneasily chirpy, like a sitcom, and you’re never quite sure what about it feels off. You think this is Drury’s move – to take a template usually filled by white characters and demonstrate how it fits, and fails to fit, others. But that idea is soon flipped on its head.

We’re then shown the lengthy opening scene for a second time, with the characters miming, and we hear, played over it, a conversation about race between four white people. Donna Banya, who as the play moves on acquires a more and more crucial role, is outstanding, and the rest of the cast hardly falter too, with what is undeniably challenging material.

Their timing and precision in synchronising their mimed scene with the track played over it is hugely impressive. This second act is alarming and uncomfortable in equal measure, and once again, you think it is the crux of the play. But Drury takes two further, even more striking turns that are best left for the audience to discover.

This is a very daring production that asks a lot of its audience; it requires you to come to the theatre ready to examine the way you see race, and, most importantly, ready to listen. Drury’s message ends up being not just about challenging preconceptions, but about understanding what it means to write or create as a black artist while feeling hemmed in by a “canon” created by white artists. She puts this across by repeatedly dismantling the format of the play, and lands on something quite unique in the process.  

Fairview will be showing at the Young Vic until 23 January.

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