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Review: FAIRVIEW CHALLENGES THEATER CONVENTIONS AND AUDIENCES at Trinity Rep

Trinity Rep's risk-taking production of FAIRVIEW examines whether the stories theater tells obscure or reveal the truths of people's lives.

Review: FAIRVIEW CHALLENGES THEATER CONVENTIONS AND AUDIENCES at Trinity Rep

If our recent, extended time away from the theater taught us anything about our relationships to the art form, it's just how much we crave the stories it tells - stories that both entertain and enlighten, highlighting our shared humanity while expanding our understanding of the many, different experiences that together compose that humanity.

But stories aren't always what they seem. As Trinity Rep's current production of FAIRVIEW - Jackie Sibblies Drury's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, directed here by Christopher Windom - reminds us, stories are just as likely to obscure truth as they are to reveal it, replacing unsettling realities with lies that reinforce, rather than challenge, audience members' limited perspectives on people whose lives are different from their own. Through its three, distinct acts, FAIRVIEW offers its audience members unsettling examples of both modes of storytelling. In the process, it asks them to choose where they stand on the purpose, and power, of theater.

From its opening act, FAIRVIEW casts this choice in stark contrasts. The set is a two-story, upper-middle class home with white walls, white furniture, white carpets. It is conspicuously nondescript and conspicuously pristine - a space that seems designed to ward off criticism rather than exude character. As lights go up, audiences meet the home's matriarch, Beverly (Mia Ellis), a middle-aged Black mother who is fastidiously concerned with making herself, her home, and her own mother's birthday dinner beyond reproach.

Her husband, Dayton (Joe Wilson, Jr.), seems game to play along, but the dynamic shifts when Beverly's opinionated sister, Jasmine (Jackie Davis), and lively teenaged daughter, Keisha (Aizhaneya Carter), enter the scene. Both challenge Beverly's tenuous control: Jasmine asserts her preferences and passions for everything from French rosé to past lovers, while Keisha - a star athlete and student who has been chasing teenage perfection for the past four years - longs for a gap year to rest and find herself. "Something is keeping me from what I could be," she confides to the audience during a brief soliloquy. "And that something. It thinks that it has made me who I am."

The stage is thus set for a drama to unfold about the weight that family expectations bear upon one young woman's desire for self-actualization. But FAIRVIEW has higher ambitions than this, instead taking audiences on an unexpected, uncomfortable examination of just who exactly gets to set the expectations for a Black, middle-class family in modern-day America. The answers upend audience expectations to challenge the very way we understand theater's most fundamental conventions. Who gets to tell the stories we watch? Whose lived experiences and desires get erased in the process? And what role do we onlookers share - whether in theater seats or neighborhood streets - in deciding whether the stories that shape marginalized people's lives are ones that elevate their truths, or obscure them?

FAIRVIEW raises these questions with a series of twists that invite the audience to step outside of what is comfortable and expected during a traditional theatrical performance. These shifts are deftly orchestrated by the performers and technical personnel, who commit fully to both the play's intentions and experiments. While the production is very much dependent on the unity of its excellent ensemble, Carter puts in a distinctive performance as Keisha, a young woman who ushers many of the play's more formally daring moves as her own earnest self-examination turns outward. The production - especially its second act, which marries onstage action with an unexpected soundtrack - also boasts incredibly tight technical work. Windom is to be commended for orchestrating these tricky maneuvers with the precision and confidence they need to land.

Excellent performances and technical precision make this production of FAIRVIEW one that challenges audience members' understanding of what theater is and does, while pointing an unflinching light toward the power and privilege that have long undergirded the stories it chooses to tell.



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