In its 40th season, Woolly Mammoth lives up to its reputation for gripping, socially-engaged drama with its production of “Fairview.” Jackie Sibblies Drury’s knotty, brilliant show, making its Washington, D.C., debut, serves as a strong start to the company’s season. A social thriller that explores the intersection of race and surveillance, Woolly stuns again with this nervy production.
Misha Kachman’s placid set, a well-appointed home complete with beige sectional and family portrait, sets the stage for what initially appears to be a family affair. Beverly (Nikki Crawford), a homemaker in pearls, busies herself preparing a birthday dinner for her mother, her task almost immediately complicated by the arrival of her sister, Jasmine (Shannon Dorsey), who brings the rosé, and a little bit of judgment.
Beverly’s husband, Dayton (Samuel Ray Gates), tries to smooth his wife’s nerves by helping out in the kitchen, which amounts to some chuckle-worthy moments. The couple’s daughter, Keisha (an appealing Chinna Palmer), arrives home to chat with Jasmine about her dream to take a gap-year from school. Shannon Dorsey is excellent as Jasmine, earning a lot of laughs in the first part of the show for her timing and physical comedy.
…Woolly stuns again with this nervy production.
The clean generic-ness of the set, tropey characters, and general hijinks may remind the audience of sitcoms like “Family Matters,” which is intentional. Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play makes it clear, bit by bit, that the characters are under surveillance – by us. The family’s broad jokes and dance breaks points to the presence of a viewership. When Beverly delivers an irritated, minutes-long rant about her husband’s failure to pick up root vegetables for dinner, we can almost hear the live studio audience applause when he presents them, with perfectly choreographed timing.
Keisha provides an early break in this veneer. In a spotlit aside, she shares with the audience that, “Something is keeping me from what I can be. That something thinks it made me who I am.”
That “something” is introduced in a jarring scene shift, in which disembodied viewers of the sitcom we have been watching impose their own soundtrack on the proceedings. The unseen Jimbo (Cody Nickell), Suze (Kimberly Gilbert), Mack (Christopher Dinolfo) and Bets (Laura C. Harris) discuss race and racism in America as the action of the first scene plays out again, in eerie pantomime.
Director Stevie Walker-Webb nicely choreographs this startling interlude. The viewers’ commentary creates a finely-tuned tension between the actions of the black family on stage and the ongoing debate. Clever staging, dependent on Colin K. Bill’s innovative lighting design, occasionally creates the perception that the viewers/voyeurs are in conversation with the sitcom “actors.”
The discussion is a credible jumble of racism, broadly offensive and finely observed. The aggro Jimbo kicks it off with the question, “What race would you choose to be?” Mack delights at the possibility of being Latinx, and Bets complains that “everything is race” in America. Suze, horrified by what she sees as her companions’ racism, claims a moral high ground, while inadvertently revealing her own white savior ambitions.
Tensions rise even further as we return to the sitcom world in an intense final act that finds these commentators invading the family’s story, spiraling the plot into chaos. Walker-Webb nicely crescendos the action to a violent climax that sees the family’s identities under attack.
The show closes with an elegant appeal for justice, tangible action, and the urgent need for new stories about black families. Consider this appointment television.
Running Time: About 2 hours with no intermission.
Advisory: The production contains profanity, depictions of racism, and a request for audience participation that is designed to be fully accessible.
“Fairview” runs through Oct. 6 at Woolly Mammoth. For tickets or more information, click here. A community conversation follows the production.