"It's a Family Affair"
Although I’m far from being as enthusiastic as many of my colleagues about Jackie Sibblies Drury’s (We Are Proud to Present . . .) challenging, theatrically innovative new play about racism at the Soho Rep, no one can deny that Sarah Benson (Blasted, An Octoroon) has applied her superlative directorial skill and imagination to it.
Sibblies Drury’s provocative material, rife with metatheatrical riffs, has been given a superb production, backed by a terrific ensemble and a team of exceptional designers. Nonetheless, it ends with an irritating bit of audience participation that defeats its own purpose and weakens even the best of what’s come before.
Mimi Lien’s substantial set, looking like the beigeiest of beige sunken living/dining rooms, and dressed in classic Raymour and Flanigan style, is notable as well for being placed behind what resembles a rectangle cut out of one side of a shoe box, the four framing edges being equidistant from their respective sides.
Within this box, whose open wall is used by the characters as a mirror, the play opens in predictable family sit-com style, this family being black and middle-class (somewhere on the spectrum from “The Cosby Show” to ‘Black-ish”).
|Charles Browning, Heather Alicia Simms, Roslyn Ruff. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
While there’s no laugh track, enough mild laughter is generated to make us feel both comfortable with the familiarity of the routines (including a brief dance number choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly) and puzzled about what this, at-first-glance, old-fashioned piece is doing in the boundary-crossing confines of 64 Walker Street. We’ll find out soon enough.
Beverly Frasier (Heather Alicia Simms), nicely dressed (the excellent costumes are by Montana Levi Blanco), is hovering over her dining room table, peeling carrots, and trying to keep an even keel, as she awaits her family’s arrival to celebrate Grandma’s birthday. Meanwhile, “It’s a Family Affair” plays in the background as her playful hubby, Dayton (Charles Browning), now and then threatens to prankishly upset the apple cart. Throughout, Grandma stubbornly remains upstairs.
|Roslyn Ruff. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
Things liven up a bit with the arrival of Beverly’s brassy sister, Jasmine (Roslyn Ruff), who grooves about to the music while grasping a glass of wine, and the Frasiers' energetic, athletic, high-achieving teenage daughter, Keisha (MaYaa Bouteng). Accents and various expressions aside, specifically racial concerns are suppressed.
|MaYaa Bouteng, Heather Alicia Simms. Photo: Julieta Cervantes/|
Although we now and then get hints that something else is cooking than what’s in the oven—like the odd glitches in the sound system, a fourth wall-breaking moment for the confused-about-something Keisha, and Beverly’s over-anxiety—a kitchen disaster brings things to a head, the lights dim, and the scene ends.
|Charles Browning, MaYaa Bouteng, Heather Alicia Simms. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.|
A team of headphone-wearing stage hands now enters in full view for a lengthy setup that puts everything back to where it was at the beginning. Normally, this tedious shift might draw critical attention; here, though, it’s perhaps making a point by using an all-white crew. Or not.
When Amith Chandrashaker’s inventive lighting comes up again, a big surprise awaits us as the same scene we’ve just watched is repeated, the words mouthed silently as the amplified voices of four white people are heard in a discussion prompted by a presumably liberal man’s asking the chillingly insensitive question, “If you could choose to be a different race, what race would you be?” (Mikail Sulaiman is responsible for the topnotch sound design.)
This twist, which involves the voices commenting on the racial elements in the sitcom they too are watching, goes on for as long as the lengthy original scene, and then longer. It is, in fact, too long, given how quickly the white audience is likely to have recognized itself in the offstage commentary.
Things get even weirder with the physical intrusion of the white characters (Suze: Hannah Cabell; Bets: Natalia Payne, Jimbo: Luke Robertson; and Mack: Jed Resnick)—each a stereotype—to whom we’ve been listening into the black family dynamic, including playing family members, with a violent climax awesomely staged by J. David Brimmer.
Then in the play’s most distinctively metatheatrical turn, Keisha gently but insistently inveighs upon the whites in the mostly white audience to come up on stage, something that about half of those in the intimate venue did when I attended, looking as awkwardly uncomfortable as those remaining in their seats, each group observing the other’s unease.
As Keisha delivers her monologue, many audience members, wherever they may be, are likely thinking more about their desire to flee than listening closely to her poetically ambiguous remarks indirectly reiterating Sibblies Drury’s themes about who gets to tell which stories about race, to which racially-oriented audiences in our white-dominated theatrical culture, and who gets to critique them (or, by extension, since Benson is white, direct them?).
The experiment is valuable in the abstract; given the self-consciousness such occasions usually produce in people like me, however, I have doubts about its universal viability.
64 Walker St., NYC
Through July 22