‘Fairview’ won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize. / NILE SCOTT STUDIOS

‘Fairview’ is an intense, challenging look at race

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‘Fairview’ is an intense, challenging look at race

‘Fairview’ won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize. / NILE SCOTT STUDIOS

Near the start of the wonderfully provocative play “Fairview,” perceptive Jasmine compares her sister Beverly to the Queen of Sheba. The comparison is apt. Set in the “Here and Now,” Jackie Sibblies Drury’s 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner finds Beverly preparing a celebration for their mother’s birthday, summoning all family members and wanting everything to go well. The script tellingly speaks of “a theater set that looks like a nice living/dining room in a nice house in a nice neighborhood.” The house in question is that of a middle- class Black family, and set and costumes should prove as challenging in their own respective ways to audience members’ views as Drury’s in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s powerful area premiere at the Calderwood Pavilion.

Erik D. Diaz’s well-detailed scenic design includes elegant lighting, the iconic Langston Hughes poem “Harlem” stage left and a large framed photo of the Obamas stage right. In Becca Jewett’s wide-ranging costume design, Jasmine – bearing flowers and roses – enters in a leather jacket and leather pants. Host Beverly and her husband Dayton dress in less dramatic attire. Their daughter Keisha wears jeans with what some teenagers consider trendy holes near the knees. Beverly intensely peels carrots and questions Dayton about the root vegetables he was asked to buy. The sisters’ lawyer brother Tyrone is late, and their mother is still upstairs. Is the initial situation a sitcom or a real scenario? Will a theatergoer’s view here reflect what has come to be known as ‘’white gaze’’ or one that is fair to everyone?

Adding to the immediacy of these questions are overheard voices of four unseen whites. During their exchanges, the question arises “If you could choose to be a different race, what race would you be?” Their responses – Asian, Latinx (one voice says Latino), Slav and African-American – are replete with stereotypical observations about culture and character. Adding insult to injury are the quartet’s alternately demeaning and downright prejudicial comments as they watch the interactions of the African-American family members. At the performance this critic attended, there were moments of laughter at some of the overheard dialogue that eventually stopped as the hurtful implications increased. Clearly Drury is testing audience members’ own biases and prejudices here and throughout the play.

That testing reaches a high point in the surprise-rich last part of “Fairview.” Without giving anything away, Jewett’s costumes are very telling complements to the surprises. Most telling of all will be the audience members’ individual responses to a closing request from the stage.

Under Pascale Florestal’s taut direction, the cast members prove a vivid ensemble. Yewande Odetoyinbo captures Beverly’s caring and concern as well as her determination about the party. Dom Carter has all of Dayton’s charm and easy demeanor. Lyndsay Allyn Cox is riveting as savvy Jasmine. Victoria Omoregie catches Keisha’s free spirit and her admiration for her aunt. Her pivotal call for equal regard for all human stories – Black and white – is properly impassioned and compelling. Theatergoers should consult a post-performance explanation for information about the white voices.

In her playbill notes, director Pascale speaks of loving “plays that challenge us, make us uncomfortable, and make us want to change in some way.” Drury’s powerfully disturbing play and SpeakEasy Stage’s stunning effort do all of that. Θ

“Fairview,” at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, runs through March 11.

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