The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This play aims to make you uncomfortable. And that’s a good thing.

From left, Nikki Crawford, Samuel Ray Gates, Shannon Dorsey and Chinna Palmer in “Fairview,” directed by Stevie Walker-Webb. (Teresa Castracane/Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)

A night of theater can often divide audiences. “Fairview” absolutely intends to.

I mean that in the most literal sense, and, if you avail yourselves of the opportunity to experience Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s smashing rendition of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning barn burner, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. And learn a bit more about what you’re seeing in the changing world around you and how you see it.

But don’t expect me to give you a detailed map of Drury’s swirling dramatic rapids. You’ll have to discover her unique approach to discussing race, one of the most complex issues we face in this country — and one some people wish would not be discussed so loudly — on your own. I heard some harrumphs and expressions of exasperation in the Woolly auditorium, along with hearty laughs of recognition. The former made me want to say: Open your hearts and minds a little. As Drury unspools her scathingly funny satire, listen to the voice that’s also declaring, “This nation does not belong to anyone. It belongs to everyone.”

“No one can own a seat forever. No one should,” the teenage Keisha, played vibrantly by Chinna Palmer, tells us at the end of the play. People of every race and ethnicity will grasp perfectly what she’s getting at in “Fairview.” This exhilarating discourse on how white people see black people and how black people think white people see black people is meant to unseat those who occupy society’s comfort zone. Or, at least, have them scoot over and make more space for the rest of the country.

As the wild structure of “Fairview” also makes plain, this is messy, this notion of white people sharing their place at the control panels of the cultural conversation. The play, adroitly brought to comic life by director Stevie Walker-Webb, begins as a kind of familiar palliative a la TV’s Huxtables: An affluent black family is preparing a birthday celebration for their elderly matriarch. The lovely Beverly (Nikki Crawford) and handsome Dayton (Samuel Ray Gates) await the arrival home of daughter Keisha, as well as of Beverly’s sister, Jasmine (Shannon Dorsey), the family troublemaker. Dorsey infuses Jasmine with the giddily inflammatory inclinations of an emotional arsonist. She is out-and-out sublime.

The conflagrations that follow, though, are not of Jasmine’s making. You’ll soon hear the disembodied voices of white people, revealing what one might imagine white people say to one another about various ethnicities, when members of those other races aren’t present. On the stage, we watch the black actors, reenacting the scene in silence, and it’s a wholly disconcerting experience, hearing how the voice-over reduces the humans in front of us to stereotypes. White audience members may hear themselves saying, “I don’t do that.” Uh huh.

More disruptions are to come, as “Fairview” metamorphoses ever more hilariously from naturalism to absurdism. The four white actors, first heard over the theater’s speakers and briefly in shadow — the collectively splendid Cody Nickell, Kimberly Gilbert, Christopher Dinolfo and Laura C. Harris — will become more corporeally central to the action. You will be alternately delighted and appalled by what they’re called on to do. This is one of those occasions in which gauging an audience’s reaction is a bona fide spectator sport. Who has permission to laugh hardest at Drury’s outrageous spectacle? If you’re black or Latinx or Asian American, do the ironies hit you in different ways?

Me, I love to be made uncomfortable in the theater — if the play is good, of course. And “Fairview” is very good. As the white commentary becomes ever more incendiary, with the unseen characters increasingly prone to unguarded remarks, the play becomes freer, and more dangerous. (Eventually, it will go crazy.) Yes, it does go on a bit, too, but not without reason. You’re kept involved because you’re kept off balance. You’re never quite sure how far this playwright is willing to go.

Drury has said that “Fairview” is built around the idea of “surveillance,” and over the course of the evening, there is that question embedded in Walker-Webb’s production of who actually is looking at whom. Set designer Misha Kachman devises an entirely realistic set for a play dabbling in surreality; it recalls the physical design for another suburban play intermingled with mystery, Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance.” The analogy isn’t perfect: In that play, the crises of white America are of a more existential variety. But the underlying notion of disturbances in the status quo — of sowing discomfort in a white audience — doesn’t feel all that dissimilar.

Drury, though, is after a more vigorous intervention with our assumptions, about our views of our fellow citizens and ourselves, as you will no doubt understand after your own encounter with “Fairview.” This is the first play of the first season of offerings by Woolly’s new artistic director, Maria Manuela Goyanes. It betokens a seamless commitment to the depth of engagement championed by her predecessor, Howard Shalwitz. And it reaffirms the admirable aspirations of the city’s theaters to compel audiences to think and laugh and think some more.

Fairview, by Jackie Sibblies Drury. Directed by Stevie Walker-Webb. Set, Misha Kachman; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Roc Lee; choreography, Ashleigh King. About 1 hour and 50 minutes. $20-$97. Through Oct. 6 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939.

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