Jackie Sibblies Drury On 'Fairview,' A Pulitzer-Winning Play About Being Watched It starts with a perfect black family in a model household, like a '70s sitcom. Then it gets weird. Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury says she was inspired by an experience with police surveillance.
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The Pulitzer-Winning Play 'Fairview' Is About Being Watched While Black

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The Pulitzer-Winning Play 'Fairview' Is About Being Watched While Black

The Pulitzer-Winning Play 'Fairview' Is About Being Watched While Black

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to cross over to Brooklyn, where a new play is being performed at Theatre for a New Audience. It's called "Fairview," and it's won all kinds of acclaim - a Pulitzer Prize for playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury and applause from critics, who've called it dazzling, ruthless, unsettling, disturbing.

The story centers on a middle-class African American family, and we find them in their carefully decorated townhouse as wife Beverly prepares a birthday dinner for her demanding mother with the help of loving husband Dayton and overachieving daughter Keisha. And it all seems like something out of a '70s sitcom until things start to get really, really weird. And that's about all I'm going to say right now because the ordinariness of it all becomes central to the play's final punch.

We caught up with Jackie Sibblies Drury recently to talk with her about the play, and she told us that the idea of this very ordinary African American family being watched by onlookers was key to developing the play.

JACKIE SIBBLIES DRURY: Initially, when I was talking to the director, Sarah Benson, we were both really interested in thinking about surveillance and sort of why surveillance affects people of color in a deeper way and this idea of being watched by someone as a person of color. There's automatically some sort of sense of suspicion, especially if the watcher is a white person. And so we sort of started from a place of trying to create what in the theater felt like a normal black family and then introducing the idea of someone watching that family and that watching changing their behavior and the course of their lives.

MARTIN: Do you remember initially what got you thinking about it? I mean, I understand that a number of artists - I mean, artists across genres - have been thinking a very great deal about what it means to be in the present moment - I mean, especially kind of going from the Obama era to the Trump era. Just - there have been a number of things in recent years that have really shaken the artistic community and the country on the whole. Was there any incident in particular or something - some event in particular that got you started thinking about this particular play at this particular time?

DRURY: Well, I guess it definitely feels as though the current political moment has, like, affected the way that the play is developed and also the way that the actors have approached their performances and also the way that the play exists in the audience's mind. But, to be totally honest, I think that at least the initial idea came from a sort of personal experience where I was spending some time in a contested region in North Africa with my husband, who's an anthropologist. And we were just aware of being actively surveilled by police in that area.

And there was something about the surveillance being embodied - like, you could see a dude wearing a sweater walking behind you. It just felt more low-tech and in person than I was used to thinking about surveillance. But it also didn't feel completely unfamiliar. There is a lot about being a person of color in America that - like, that experience of someone watching me with suspicion, sort of expecting me to do something ill or a bad or illegal (laughter) that felt familiar. And so that really was the impetus, at least for me.

MARTIN: One of the things about the play that has been so interesting, you know, to watch people write about is that a lot of the critics who normally in writing about plays kind of make themselves invisible or they sort of imply...

DRURY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...That their view of the thing is the view that anybody would have. And one of the things...

DRURY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...That's so fascinating about the play itself is the way you make the audience, including the critics, kind of question the way they're looking at it. It's one of those things where you sort of can't escape the way you look at it really has a lot to do with who you are - who you are and who you were when you walked into that theater. And I was just fascinated by how you pulled that off. Like, did you start out with the idea of saying, you know, I'm going to invite you to experience what I experience all the time?

(LAUGHTER)

DRURY: Like, basically. And that was so well put, Michel. Thank you for that also. Like, the play tries to point to whiteness not as the norm or not as invisible but as a particular vantage that can be damaging to other races. And not all of the critics that wrote reviews of the play are white. But most critics for theater are white, and so it was really, I thought, neat to see people sort of engage with that and talk about their place in this ecosystem of art and criticism and journalism. It was really exciting.

MARTIN: Why theater for you? Is this - this is not your first play. I do you want to point out that this is not the first play that you've had mounted, and it's certainly not even the first one that's been critically acclaimed. But this has certainly made a big splash. I was wondering, you know, why theater as opposed to sitcoms or the movies for you? Why is that your preferred form, at least for now?

DRURY: I grew up as, like, a theater dork who, like, memorized all the lyrics to "Rent" and "Les Mis" (ph), and that - like, I was in plays in elementary school after school always. And so I feel like, even as I, like, grew older and (laughter) experienced other things that I just - I really like the form. I like that you have to be in a room with other people. I like that you hear people cough, and you get annoyed at people who have big hair sitting in front of you, and that there's just, like, this crazy, embodied experience. And so it - I like that a lot of different people can come into a room and have a similar point of focus but really, really different experiences. And that just is inspiring to me.

MARTIN: That was playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury. Her play "Fairview" won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

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