KC Melting Pot’s “Fairview” Subverts Structure and Expectations To Engage in Complex Questions About Race & Art

Two Black actors argue over a dinner table.

Amber Redmond and Daniel André in Fairview (Thomas Kimble-TK Photography)

Over a number of recent productions, the KC Melting Pot Theater has chosen to explore questions about the ways in which race and class play out in the acts of producing and consuming theatre. The company has put on a number of plays that are specifically about the ways in which race informs the plays themselves and the institution of theater—the implications of putting on plays about race and racism, often with all or majority-POC casts, for audiences that are, on an institutional level, still usually majority white.

These questions have been central to quite a few Melting Pot shows, but Fairview takes them to an entirely new level, using structure-busting absurdity to push our expectations and our assumptions as far as possible. The play, written by Jackie Sibblies Drury and winner of the 2019 Pulitzer prize, tells the story of an unassuming, even borderline dull upper-middle-class Black family. The first act (of a four-act structure) centers on Beverly (Amber Redmond) preparing for her mother’s birthday dinner. Her stress level is preposterously high as her stakes are pretty much limited to getting the root vegetables cooked in time and fending off her sister’s microaggressions. This is, by all accounts, a pretty quotidian comedy of manners.

The first and only sign in that first act that something more might be looming comes from a singular fourth-wall break from Beverly’s teenage daughter, Keisha (Jackie Price), who addresses the audience for only a moment, to comment on her love for the women in her family. The moment comes so late in the play (around the 30-minute mark) and is so brief that it actually feels jarring, and like a structural misstep. As it turns out, it’s essentially the foundation for everything that’s about to come.

From here, Fairview is a staunchly unreviewable play for any playgoers who want to remain unaware of its massive second-act twist. I will say that I was exceptionally glad to know absolutely nothing about this show going into it. If you’d like to remain in the dark about the show’s twists, now is the time to turn away.

Two Black actors onstage act out a scene while a group of other actors dressed in black observes from above.
The cast of Fairview (Thomas Kimble-TK Photography)

A sudden shift midway through the play’s first half reveals an entirely new set of characters. These four characters appear above the first act’s set—a peanut gallery holding court, engaging each other in tedious, clumsy, extremely shallow discussions about race. (“If you could choose to be any race, what race would you be?” one overly confident man (Doug Dresslaer) asks, initiating an insufferable debate that somehow ends with a lengthy play-by-play of the hyperviolent gross-out horror movie Hostel series.)

These characters, as you might have guessed, are white. Or rather, they are not African-American. It seems as though they were all written as white, or at least played by white actors in the original production. One of these so-called surveyors, Bets, is French, inserted among three Americans. In the Melting Pot’s production, she is played by a Black actress, Ebonee Grace, adding an intriguing new layer to these conversations about how “obsessed” Americans are with race.

And these white Americans are, no doubt about it, obsessed with race—with classifications, hierarchies, stereotypes, “authenticity,” savior narratives, and every other imaginable angle. Not that Bets has a perspective free of ignorance, having the privilege of wealth and clearly considering her above the entire issue, which she dismisses as being exclusively American and therefore not worth discussing. No one here has the answers because the point of the play is to raise questions—questions of who gets to be centered in these conversations, of what it really means to be able to tell your own stories and to make space for others to do so.

The play draws us in with its increasingly extreme humor but as it becomes more comedic, it also becomes more insidious as the surveyor characters talk over the Black characters and talk for them, making themselves central to a story they insist on taking full control of before the whole show abruptly twists once again to land its poignant final moments. It is genuinely impressive that the cast, under the skillful direction of Lynn King, manages to handle every turn with the humor, grace, and weight they deserve.

KC Melting Pot continues to be one of the best places in the Kansas City area to find provocative, endlessly creative conversations on race, class, the arts, and the complicated relationship between them.

“Fairview,” a production of KC Melting Pot, runs through February 18 at the Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central. For more information, visit www.kcmeltingpot.com.

Vivian Kane

Vivian Kane is a writer living in Kansas City. She covers pop culture and politics for a national audience at The Mary Sue and theatre and film locally, with bylines in The Pitch. She has an MFA in Theatre from CalArts.

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