Would he leave his seat and go on the stage? Maybe not for the symbolism but perhaps as a creative exercise in being fully present and immersed in the work? For a moment, to move beyond just being an audience member?
As I wondered what the white male theatergoer sitting beside me would do his friend walked past us and asked, “Are you coming?” Without hesitation the white man sitting beside me replied, “No.” I couldn’t help but shake my head, unsurprised by the reaction.
A few rows ahead an older couple stood seemingly paralyzed in the aisle as a monologue continued around them from the seats of the theater. Whatever their hesitation something moved them and they joined other audience members on an increasingly crowded stage.
My eyes scanned the theater to see how many people had answered the closing appeal of Fairview to make space. Keisha, played by MaYaa Boateng, prompted the audience. “But if I could ask the folks who call themselves white to come up here, do you think they would? Could I ask them to come up in here, so that we could go down out there?... To switch for a little while?... Look out from where I am. And let me and my family go out to where you’ve always been... If I asked would they do it?”
Some responded immediately, others like the person beside me, remained unmoved. Still, of the sparse number of people left sitting almost all were folks of color. As I surveyed the emptiness I reflected on what it meant to be seen. I remembered all of the lectures over my life of having to be “twice as good”—and that only in doing so could I maybe be seen and perhaps thrive.
I reflected on the many times too many folks I knew demanded to be seen in the fullness of their worth only to be told to be grateful for what they received. It manifested itself often but was most pronounced in the realm of work—the promised raise that didn’t come through, being overlooked for a promotion, being told they were “valued” but weren’t treated as such.
I thought about what it meant to be seen on a stage, the truths of the lived black experience in America reflected back at me. I oscillated between many emotions, some of which I’m still working through. And I thought about the person next to me and the others who remained seated. These were people who came to see a black story but missed the point and would perhaps leave the same way they arrived.
Fairview, which closed on Sunday after many sold-out houses at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, was a superb and unsettling multilayered narrative that demanded mental and emotional unspooling long after the actors took their final bow. Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury and directed by Sarah Benson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning work presented by Theatre for a New Audience is truly deserving of all the laurels it has received.
The narrative construction was seemingly simple: the Frasier family gathered for dinner and things went awry thereafter. It's a relatable scenario because who doesn’t have a story about a family gathering which started off fine and ended up being a hot mess? Still, this was no ordinary dinner and contained within the living room walls of the Frasier home were stories that ran parallel and eventually bled into each other.
The relationship between the two narratives was a reminder of the world within a world that is being a person of color—and specifically black—in America. More overtly it was a commentary on the caricatures and monolithic view through which the black experience is often viewed.
As they prepared for dinner, a group of four people offstage watched and offered commentary, akin to how one would watch a movie at home with friends. They took turns answering the question “If you could choose to be a different race, what race would you be?” Each gave their answer and when the conversation steered to being black each had a take on what constituted an “authentic” black experience. Hint: it largely involved being loud, ghetto, poor, and outlandish.
Snap back to dinner and each of the people watching the Frasiers ends up becoming family members. Inserting themselves into the story they portray their version of what it means to be black, and in one case Latinx. Tyrone arrives (Jimbo, played by Luke Robertson) in baggy clothes as DMX’s “Party Up (Up in Here)” blares.
Grandma (Suze, played by Hannah Cabell) in exaggerated speech, talks about how she started with “nothing” and cleaned houses in order to one day own one. Beverly, played by Heather Alicia Simms, reminds her that’s not true.
Perception and reality blurred as the dinner devolved into a reality TV-style verbal smackdown centered on trying to unearth what was “wrong” with each character. Because despite whatever normal flaws they may have surely something much more serious was happening. Drugs? Gambling? All of the above?
As the black family members made largely futile attempts to defend themselves against allegations of impropriety, the space descended into chaos. The pristine living room with food and other items thrown and strewn about ends up resembling a frat party movie. In what could be missed as just a frenetic scene Drury deftly highlighted how black people are left to simultaneously operate in the truth of who they are while balancing the reality of how they are perceived.
That the chaos happened in the backdrop of their home was particularly poignant. A space in which intimacy amongst loved ones ought to encourage the ability to emotionally exhale, the family finds itself fighting the battles of the outside world in what ought to be a safe space. In a world where black lives are constantly under threat, it was a reminder that not even perceived safe spaces offer complete refuge.
The theater, if only for two hours, was a safe space. As I thought about the person sitting next to me and their unwillingness to make space I was reminded of Sunday morning church service.
At the conclusion of preaching my pastor leaves an elevated pulpit to stand amongst the congregation. He announces a call to salvation, inviting those who wish to be saved and have a deeper relationship with Christ to walk down the aisle. There’s no pressure to give money, no pressure to join the church. Rather the act of walking is an admission that there is yet room for growth, that there is a willingness to think about one’s walk through the world, to “love thy neighbor as thyself” just a little bit more.
He then puts a challenge to us, the congregants. It loosely goes something like “look to your left and right. Ask the person next to you if they know Jesus as their savior. If they say no, don’t force them but simply say ‘I’ll walk with you.’” Time and again the offer of “I’ll walk with you” has led many to walk down the aisle.
Fairview was an invitation, the breaking of the fourth wall an altar call. It was an opportunity to explore the world through someone else’s eyes if only for a few minutes. In doing so perhaps it could offer the first step to seeing and making more space in the real world. Many took it and I hope they walked away thinking about how that small act could translate outside the theater walls.
The theatergoer beside me missed the invitation. Similar to an altar call they had several opportunities. There was the initial invitation of Keisha to the audience, the appeal she made while standing 10 feet away from us and that of their friend who essentially communicated “I’ll walk with you, let’s go together” after their initial “No.”
The great irony of their decision is that my decision to literally make space allowed the man to occupy the seat he decided not to move from. Though I had a pair of tickets my guest was unable to make it. As a result, I donated my extra ticket at the box office so that someone on the waitlist would be able to see the sold-out show on its last day.
The white man next to me had (although he didn't know it) ended up with my extra ticket. I laughed at the irony, reminded that time and again folks of color do and are expected to make literal space with often little to no reciprocity.
That reality has always been one of the gifts of privilege and whiteness—the ability and sense of entitlement to take up space and conversely often decide who has access to it. While the latter role was reversed the sense of entitlement remained.
Each of us attending the show made a choice to be there. The guest beside me made the choice to join a waitlist not knowing if they would be able to see the show but stayed and waited. Both of those things suggest on some level a willingness to engage with the work. But when engagement crosses over into discomfiting participation is it asking too much? Perhaps for them the answer was yes. After all, the nearly two-hour performance was just entertainment, right?
Over the last three years our country has descended further and further into a moral quicksand. The inability to see each other, to make space, has increased a sense of helplessness and righteous anger while hateful rhetoric quite literally is costing fellow citizens their very lives. Imagine how much different our country could be, how the lived experiences of folks of color and those with identities that are marginalized could be if more white folks decided to step into the aisle and simply walk.