A Black man and Black woman are shown standing next to a dining table. He is holding her arms. There is a sofa behind them.
David Goodloe (left) and Kandice Robins in Fairview at Definition Theatre Credit: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize, but is only getting its Chicago premiere now courtesy of Definition Theatre. After seeing Tyrone Phillips’s staging at the cozy Revival space in Hyde Park, I’m glad that Definition snagged it, and not just because this company (which has been doing excellent work for years and is planning to open its own Woodlawn venue) deserves the feather in its cap. This show needs the up-close perspective provided at the Revival—I can’t imagine it working nearly as well on a larger proscenium stage.

Fairview
Through 5/28: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; The Revival, 1160 E. 55th St., definitiontheatre.org, $35

Drury’s story unfolds in three acts, all set in the home of a Black family preparing a birthday celebration for their mother and grandmother. Beverly (Kandice Robins) is nervously peeling carrots and worrying that things won’t come together. Her husband, Dayton (David Goodloe), tries to reassure her, but her sister, Jasmine (Martasia Jones), only adds drama (and wine) to the mix when she shows up, being extra AF. (In a sly bit of metacommentary, Jasmine tells her sister, “You’re like one of those movies that’s a family movie.”) Meanwhile, Beverly and Dayton’s high-achieving teenage daughter, Keisha (Jada Jackson), wants to take a gap year, but Mom won’t hear of it. Finally, the pressure of being the perfect hostess seemingly gets to Beverly, and she faints.

After intermission, we see the same scene again. But this time, there are four white people kibbitzing on the sidelines (in Revival’s space, they are literally on bleachers) and having their own sidebar discussions about race, while Beverly’s family moves through the previous actions without dialogue, as if they’re in a silent movie. The discussion, led by the bro-ish Jimbo (Max Stewart), focuses on the question “If you could choose to be any race, what race would you be?” Perhaps predictably, the answers are problematic when they’re not completely naive. (In a moment that probably lands a little differently after the invasion of Ukraine, a Russian woman, played by Carley Cornelius, insists that Slavs are a different race.)

It’s not possible to talk about the last act without spoilers, but suffice it to say that Drury smashes together the two previous sections in a way that both sends up and excoriates the white gaze on Black stories, inching ever closer to implicating (or at least challenging) the show’s audience.  (A telling detail in Sydney Lynne Thomas’s set is a painting that looks very much like a Rorschach test.)

Drury has explored the ways in which Black narratives are controlled by white people in the past, notably in We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 (now onstage with Theatre Y).  And while the controlling factors here aren’t in service of whitewashing a genocide, Fairview does toss out an abundance of stereotypes about Black family life, from teen pregnancy to financial profligacy, that have dominated white discourse for years. (Moynihan Report, anyone?)

Phillips’s staging for the most part keeps the pseudo-realist and absurdist elements in balance, and the cast is also nearly always in synch, even as the story veers into unexpected territory. But speaking as a white viewer, I’d say that’s the point: Drury’s play tells us that the movies in our mind about race and family life are already steeped in toxic (and yes, absurd) notions. If the end of this play feels unexpected, maybe that’s because we haven’t been paying enough attention.