Friday, March 9, 2018

In the last production in its church home, Phoenix Theatre mounts a racially charged comedy

You can make a stage play rich in silliness, but if its humor is focused on America's continuing racial divide, the silliness will evaporate like alcohol in a recipe. The matter of race is what imparts the full flavor; the fun adds a desperately desired zest.

"Fairfield," by Eric Coble, is such a play. Seen at a preview performance Thursday night on the Phoenix Theatre's Basile Stage, the two-act comedy delved deep into the contemporary American dilemma. But it rose to a climax of pure farce, and — for both good and ill —  never quite transcended a certain sit-com superficiality.

The title denotes an elementary school in a "liberal suburb," the program tells us, during Black History Month. By the end, the annual dedicated focus on African-Americans seems to be occupying the longest month rather than the shortest.

Over the intercom, Principal Wadley tries to exert control.
Careerism in public education today works to assert itself against a confusing social milieu. In "Fairfield" the initial clash on that score is between Mrs. Wadley, the school's thoroughly assimilated black principal, and first-year first-grade teacher Laurie Kaminski, a white liberal of more unbounded enthusiasm for the celebration than prudence might dictate. Wadley would rather rainbow-wash the observance, which puts her at the edge of inappropriateness just as much as Kaminski's screwball lesson plans put her.

Milicent Wright gives to Wadley a cheerful, stentorian authority. The character's facade will eventually shatter as things go awfully wrong at the school. The cheerfulness will fade, and her response to an incident in Ms. Kaminski's classroom will eventually defenestrate her instincts toward moderation. Also reduced to tatters is the idealistic banner lofted high by the first-grade teacher, played with an overflowing ebullience by Mara Lefler.

First-grade teacher Laurie Kaminski has some explaining to do.
More than 50 years ago, Stokely Carmichael wrote something still painful to read for its relevance today: "White America will not acknowledge that the ways in which this country sees itself are contradicted by being black." You can resolve contradictions that arise from different points of view, but not the kind that are part of identity. Yet that seems to be the attempt that's become institutionalized in the nation's public schools during February. It's a heroic effort, but it also raises so many discrepancies between intention and action, perception and reality, that comedy may be a useful way to shed light upon them.

Coble achieves quite a lot in that direction. The dialogue is witty and often laced with irony. Characters tie themselves in knots to make it evident they are on the side of the angels. Sometimes they seem closer to the fallen angels at home in Dante's hell, to which Coble makes a couple of allusions. Two couples emerge as the center of parental anger at the turmoil that grips Fairfield. They carom between offensive and defensive positions stemming from a classroom fight between their sons.

The parents of a son involved in a classroom fight confer at home.
Dwuan Watson and LaKesha Lorene play with fiery gusto the African-American parents proud of their status in the comfortable suburb, but anxious about signs that the incident may undermine it. Doug Powers and Jean Arnold are the reasonable-sounding white parents whose goodwill is fragile and often frustrated. (Powers and Watson are absolutely assured in crucial secondary roles they take on — Powers as the nervous district superintendent, Watson as a distant relative of the principal whom she brings in to offer a student assembly historical perspective, and who turns out to be an unreconstructed Black Panther.)

Both couples are at odds internally as the tension increases; both try to free themselves from
The other couple mulls over a proper response to the problem.
stereotypes with the same flailing failure as Br'er Rabbit punching the uncommunicative tar baby. I've deliberately chosen an un-p.c. comparison to point up the kind of identity contradictions Carmichael was so insightful about. In their updating of the Uncle Remus story, the Disney folks turned the tar baby into some kind of frosting-heavy cake, as I recall, to avoid giving offense.  Br'er Rabbit would get sticky, but not stuck, punching a gooey cake. His getting stuck is the point of the story. And getting stuck is what happens to the characters in "Fairfield."

I'm tempted to think Coble might have chosen the name of his school, and his play's title, from the most famous phrase in the Middle English poem "Piers Plowman." There William Langland's narrator awakens from a dream (he thinks) to see "a fair field full of folk." From that sight (and site)  the allegorical poem is launched and the dreamer adventures among these folks as they fan out across the landscape into all the joys and troubles that are the human lot in life. At its best "Fairfield" wants to present a vision of all good things that may lie ahead of us along the bright horizon; but, in racial matters, it shows we can't yet resolve all the contradictions as we drag our identities behind us.

At the other end of seriousness, the script has touches that I think of as laugh-track lines. These are
The principal is in the hot seat as her boss upbraids her.
gags that aren't exactly implausible but seem to be included for the guffaw effect. The yellow flag went up for me when Principal Wadley, in an opening scene introducing to an all-school assembly the wonders of Black History Month, brings up the word "diverse" to make sure the kids know what she wants to celebrate. One of the kids misunderstands, and she says in response something like, "No, not perverse, that's something else." I don't think even a bright smart-aleck of tender age would have shouted that. It was one of several places where I felt the comedy was at a sit-com level. If something clever or sizzly occurred to Coble, in it went.

Ansley Valentine directs this adept cast, which is occasionally required to stitch together line fragments and overlapped dialogue with the precision and speed of tennis doubles teams volleying at the net. Moving in and out among Zac Hunter's set, with its large, pale, geometric forms dominated by a tower of letter blocks, the actors are nearly flawless, with one exception: An odd paradox about farce is that when the action turns chaotic, the actors have to work with machine-tooled precision. At the preview, this cast wasn't quite there yet in the astonishing final scene. The violence looked approximate; everything in the play that led up to that was spot-on, however.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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