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Fairview Confronts Bias with Comedy and Community

Co-directors Kwaku Okyere and Mindy Parfitt discuss encouraging difficult conversations.

by Yasmine Shemesh

In an interview with American Theatre, Jackie Sibblies Drury explained how comedy informs her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Fairview. “I feel like the dumbest joke helps you understand something that’s very complex and violent in a way that your brain is actually able to deal with it,” she said, with the outlet noting Richard Pryor as her inspiration. 

Indeed, Fairview’s first act opens like a suburban sitcom comedy, as a Black family prepares a birthday party for their grandmother. But nothing is as it seems, and, soon enough, everything changes. Then changes again. 

For those who haven’t experienced the play, it’s important to not give too much away about what comes next—doing so would spoil the gravity of the punch, and the whole point. But the ways in which Drury harnesses comedy to confront themes of race and surveillance highlight how theatre can be used as a tool for having difficult conversations, say Kwaku Okyere and Mindy Parfitt, co-directors of Fairview, which opens the Cultch’s 50th season this month. 

It was important to set that tone right away with the cast in rehearsal, Okyere tells RANGE, sitting beside Parfitt in the cultural hub’s lobby.

“We took great pains to make sure that, on the first day, we were creating a foundation in the room in which we could then be really brave with this material,” he says. “It requires a lot of courage, as we’ve discovered, while also balancing us having a sort of joy and buoyancy around the more prickly bits of the play.”

“It requires a lot of courage, as we’ve discovered, while also balancing us having a sort of joy and buoyancy around the more prickly bits of the play.”

Parfitt agrees. “We have a really amazing team of people and we’re very, very fortunate,” she adds. “We have a great group of people who are, as Kwaku said, being very courageous and open-hearted about how they’re approaching the material in the work. So we feel really lucky.”

“We’re all in this together,” Okyere continues. “We’re a united front. We’re all taking care of each other, exploring this play that can be challenging at times.”

Fairview is co-produced by Vancouver’s The Search Party, for which Parfitt is Artistic Director, and Toronto’s b current Performing Arts. After a friend suggested that Parfitt read Drury’s play, Parfitt, who is white, began looking for a co-director to produce the production. She connected with Okyere through mutual friends. The Ghanaian-Canadian director was in the midst of associate directing Redbone Coonhound—another play that uses comedy as a lens through which to examine race and power—and recalls feeling a sense of excitement, because as he agreed to collaborate with Parfitt, Fairview was about run in Toronto.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, what a great opportunity,’” Okyere recalls. “And this never fucking happens, where the thing you’re about to embark on, there’s another version of it somewhere that you can watch and kind of use as a reference point… It’s just interesting that the play seemed to be in the zeitgeist in that way, and multiple people had been thinking about it and wanting to do it.”  

Fairview takes place in a nondescript middle-class American suburb. Early into their collaboration, Okyere and Parfitt considered if they should set the Vancouver production somewhere in Canada—a consideration coming from not wanting the audience to “other themselves,” Parfitt says. They wondered: “If we keep it in the States, will that allow for a barrier or buffer, sort of a safety zone between the audience and the story?” 

But the directors quickly decided it was crucial to stay true to the script. “I think that some plays are open to that latitude of you changing where it’s set, or whatever,” Okyere says. “But I think with this play, we are talking about race—and the way race functions in Canada is very different to how it functions in the States. And so, I think to excise it from that cultural understanding of it being American, it fundamentally changes what the play is.” 

Canada and the States are “same-same, but different,” Okyere notes. ”I think there are a lot of parallels between our neighbours down south when it comes to race. I think there are some things that are wildly different, but it would be a fallacy for us to say that there isn’t racism here, or there isn’t racism in the same way that it happens in America. I think that’s a very rose-tinted glasses way of looking at it.”  

To present the audience with Fairview’s message, Drury powerfully utilizes concept and structure—layering the play’s three acts like a nesting doll that changes shape and moves in new directions with each reveal. “I think the way in which she subverts form is a really genius way of gently coaxing people,” Okyere says, “and then being like, ‘Okay, now that I’ve got you, I’m going to switch it. And hopefully, because I gained your trust in the beginning, you will continue to go on the journey with me.’” 

In accompaniment to the production, The Search Party is hosting three workshops to further highlight Fairview’s themes, with events specifically for Black artists, BIPOC folks, and all folks. There will also be a special block party that celebrates Black culture in Vancouver. “I think it’s about expanding our ability to have difficult conversations, and some self-reflection about where our own places of bias and inability to see how we participate in acts of racism or micro-aggression,” says Parfitt. “And, for me, a big part of The Search Party is about building community, and that’s a big part of what the outreach is about: how do we build community and how do we coexist with one another?” 

“I think it’s about expanding our ability to have difficult conversations, and some self-reflection about where our own places of bias and inability to see how we participate in acts of racism or micro-aggression.”

Community building can be a way into having difficult conversations, Okyere adds. “I think the big thing that I would like for Vancouver audiences to take away from this piece is to be able to have these conversations cross-culturally, so that we’re not siloed and in an echo chamber of sorts, repeating things back to each other that we already know,” he says.

“I think a lot of what this play is trying to do is allow people to see things from a vantage point that is not theirs, from a place of compassion and understanding and with a hungriness to learn,” he says. “And so that’s what I think is the most important thing. It feels like a part of this race conversation that I don’t hear or see happening enough, where we’re all going to come together and talk about this with the understanding that you can’t know what you can’t know based on your lived experiences.”

“There’s things that I can’t know about Mindy’s lived experiences based on all of her intersections and vice versa,” Okyere continues. “But that does not stop us from making a really wonderful team and grappling with, you know, the areas of maybe friction that arise because of the difference in our intersections. It’s not a reason to not do the thing. If anything, it’s actually more reason to do the thing.”  

Fairview runs from September 27 to October 8 at the Historic Theatre at the Cultch | TICKETS & INFO