When I walked into Theater for a New Audience at Polonsky Shakespeare Center this past summer, I couldn’t help but wonder what “new audience” it was referring to. As I sat down, I counted myself as one of a small handful of people of color in the theater’s 299 seats. I was disappointed, but the whiteness of most theatrical spaces no longer surprises me.
I wouldn’t have thought twice about that first impression if I had been there to see any other performance, but I was there to see “Fairview,” Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Drury knew exactly what I was thinking, and she was about to throw it back onto the audience in one of the most explosive commentaries about race in America of our generation.
“Fairview” begins as a comfortable comedy about a Black American family, the Frasiers, then veers into a conversation about race between four unseen white voices as they watch the Frasiers. As the discourse continues, the spectators become so emboldened that they physically insert themselves on-stage as friends and family of the Frasiers. In projecting their vision of blackness onto the Frasiers, they misconstrue the narrative into an absurdist and increasingly violent spectacle until Keisha, the Frasiers' teenage daughter, rips down the fourth wall and steers the play into a breath-taking landing.
For most of the performance I felt sick to my stomach. When the conversation about race began in the second act, I tensed in my seat, nervous about what I might hear next.
“Every Asian I know is like tortured by their parents’ expectations...”
“With Latinx people it’s like, they don’t think, they just are what they are, like this pelvic, spicy, bright bold thing...”
“I wouldn’t want to be a rich black person. You know? It wouldn’t be… very authentic…”
With each casually horrifying statement, I grew more disturbed by the indifference, and even amusement, of most of the white audience members around me as the unseen voices carelessly tossed around race as though it was as trivial as discussing what they wanted to eat for dinner. And when those white characters burst on stage and began taking over the Frasiers' narrative, I wanted to scream. It was all too familiar to me, watching white folks who think reading our books and watching our movies and listening to our music and wearing our clothes and eating our food and using our words means they have an authority over our experiences, too.
Drury finally offered me relief in the play’s dizzying finale. Ending in an impassioned monologue, Keisha breaks the fourth wall and dares to ask white audience members to switch spots with the black actors on stage to make space for us, the small handful of people of color in the theater’s 299 seats.
As I saw all the white bodies that began to empty the seats and fill the stage, I marveled at Drury’s genius. Using the immediacy of theater as a medium, Drury makes white audience members confront their own white gaze within the racialized performer/spectator power dynamic. At the same time, she validates the experiences as a person of color by making the space change to fit us, in contrast to our internalized habit of changing ourselves to fit white spaces. But we never really escaped. At the end, Keisha tries to tell a story “about us, by us, for us” but finds herself unable to do so.
“It’s difficult because I’ve already heard so many stories,” she says. “It’s hard to find the one I’d wanted to tell.”
In a country where whiteness is synonymous with default, and you’ve had to define yourself in relation to that default your whole life, how do you even begin to tell your own story? How do you rip away the whiteness that has been watching you for generations and how do you find the footing to leap into a new, radically different world?
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I’ve felt the white gaze my whole life. It’s being watched from a lens of otherness that is sometimes violently obvious, and sometimes so subtle that you find yourself wondering whether you made it up entirely. It is fetishization and repulsion, appropriation and persecution, misrepresentation and erasure, all at once.
For me, it’s the white professor who not only felt authorized to give a lecture about the Chinese American experience, but started the lecture by asking the class to identity what was strange about a picture of Chinatown. It’s the incessant questions of “But where are you really from?” It’s yellow-face and white-washed casting and racialized caricatures in everything from “The Nutcracker” to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” It’s the white girls who wear Urban Outfitters versions of the qipao as if it were just another t-shirt. It’s the internalized Eurocentric beauty standards that make me feel not enough. It’s the “I don’t date Asian girls,” but also the “I’ve always wanted to hook up with an Asian girl.” It’s strangers who drive by me slowly and yell “konichiwa” out the car window, then follow me until I am afraid for my safety.
It’s also a particular violence toward Black people that Drury portrays through a contemporary exploration of minstrelsy. As much as Drury deconstructs the white gaze for all people of color, she also illuminates a specific anti-Blackness that cannot be ignored. What makes “Fairview” so compelling is Drury’s ability to tackle both the subtle consequences of the white gaze and the obvious ones, and demonstrate how one enables the other. Those seemingly innocuous ways of reducing people of color to archetypes for white consumption are exactly what give the white characters the agency to affect their own agenda onto the storyline.
For white-identifying folks, how can you recognize your own white gaze and make space for people of color? For people of color, how can you deconstruct the power of the white gaze and reclaim space for yourself?
I’m thinking through questions of identity and culture and how we create it and how it creates us, and sometimes it feels so daunting that my head spins from the weight of it. “Fairview” doesn’t offer any answers, but in the communion of the other people of color around me, I found a comfort and strength that has stayed with me ever since.
Campus Voices is a Recess column wherein writers of historically marginalized backgrounds are invited to discuss the relationship between their identity (or an aspect of it) and a specific work of art that is meaningful to them. If you'd like to write a piece for this column, please contact Recess' editor, Nina Wilder, at firstname.lastname@example.org.