From the opening lines of SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s bracing and inventive “Fairview,” the act of watching, and being watched, and the power dynamics at play, are front and center.
“What are you looking at?” a woman named Beverly Frasier (Yewande Odetoyinbo) asks her husband, Dayton (Dom Carter), who has been silently observing her, an affectionate look on his face. Beverly adds: “You don’t just watch a person, and they don’t know you’re there, and you’re there just looking at them.”
Later on in “Fairview,” Beverly and Dayton, along with their daughter Keisha (Victoria Omoregie) and Beverly’s sister Jasmine (Lyndsay Allyn Cox), will be the subject of a more sustained, and much less benign, act of observation.
This time the observers will be white, and their observations will be suffused with assumptions, condescension, and the serene confidence that they have the right to make judgments about the Black family — and, more broadly, claim any space as theirs.
Director Pascale Florestal deftly navigates the jolting tonal shifts of “Fairview,” with strong contributions from her design team (set, Erik D. Diaz; costumes, Becca Jewett; lighting, Aja M. Jackson; and sound, James Cannon).
There’s a lot going on in “Fairview,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2019. Drury has constructed an ingenious, meta-theatrical framework within which to examine the white gaze and the multiple forms racism can take. She does not let the American theater, or the audience, off the hook.
Originality is one of her hallmarks as a playwright. Boston theatergoers may recall the production at the Emerson Paramount Center in 2014 of her ingenious “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.”
In that play-within-a-play, a group of actors rehearse a “presentation” about the systematic slaughter of the Herero people in Africa by German colonial forces.
“Fairview” presents itself at first as an innocuously broad family comedy. Beverly is preparing a birthday dinner for her mother, and she desperately wants everything to go right. She’s convinced husband Dayton has forgotten to buy the root vegetables she needs (he hasn’t). Her brother Tyrone has not arrived yet, but her glamorous and vain sister Jasmine has. She and Beverly immediately begin to clash. One sore point is that Keisha, a high-achieving student, wants to take a gap year before college and has enlisted Aunt Jasmine in her effort to persuade Beverly that it’s a good idea.
Omoregie, who grew up in Dorchester and graduated from BU last year, has to carry a lot of emotional weight in “Fairview” as Keisha. She does an exceptional job at it, holding her own with three talented veterans in Cox, Odetoyinbo, and Carter, all of whom deliver expertly calibrated performances in demanding roles.
Spoiler alert: Certain details are needed to give a sense of what makes “Fairview” unique, but stop reading here if you don’t want to know.
In Act Two, “Fairview” moves into very different dramatic territory. The Frasiers duplicate their activities from Act One, conversation by conversation, but soundlessly this time: They mouth but do not say the words.
They are usurped by the voices of four unseen white people, heard over the P.A. system, their conversation revolving around a question one of them poses: “If you could choose to be a different race, what race would you be?”
That what-if? kicks off an animated, stereotype-laden discussion by the foursome (voiced by Russell Garrett, Maureen Keiller, Jon Vellante, and Gigi Watson). They clearly see it as a game, as if racial and ethnic identity were nothing more than a collection of hats, to be casually put on and just as casually taken off.
Then, the quartet begins commenting on the Frasiers and the action taking place in the Black family’s household, as if the Frasiers were performing especially for them. They toss off remarks they clearly see as praise (“I just love it when they dance”) and sneering dismissals (”They have no taste, this family.”)
What comes next in “Fairview” are some twists that I’ll leave you to discover on your own. Based on overhead snippets as the audience filed out of the Calderwood Pavilion on Sunday afternoon, “Fairview” is going to start a lot of conversations.
Play by Jackie Sibblies Drury. Directed by Pascale Florestal. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through March 11. Tickets start at $25. 617-933-8600, www.SpeakEasyStage.com