Pulitzer-winning playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury wants her audience to feel awkward
Her play ‘Fairview’ wrestles with white audiences judging work by people of color
Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury is a veteran of occupying spaces, from the theater to Yale to America itself, that aren’t necessarily welcoming but still feel like home.
Her play Fairview, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize, critiques the white gaze, particularly in theater, where it’s not uncommon to see shows starring, written and directed by black people that are performed for audiences that are older and whiter than the country at large.
One of the most impressive things about Fairview is its creativity in addressing this strangeness. The first act is about a black family getting ready to fete the family’s matriarch for her birthday. But the show takes a left turn in the second act, when the actors repeat the same lines and scenes from the first act but they’re muted. Instead, the audience hears a running commentary from four white characters who have been watching the play and eventually begin talking about what race they would be if they could choose. In the third act, the white people are visible and insert themselves into the family drama. Havoc ensues, and the whole enterprise is wrapped up with a surprise shift in the power dynamics between the audience and the actors.
A first-generation American, Sibblies Drury, 37, grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, the daughter of Jamaican parents. She studied playwriting at Yale School of Drama after years of traveling to New York with her mother to see plays and musicals as a child.
Her newest work, Marys Seacole, which ended its run at Lincoln Center in April, looked at the Jamaican nurse known as the black Florence Nightingale. But it’s more than a dramatized biography. Sibblies Drury uses the play to examine generations of care work by Jamaican women, how it is undervalued and how race colors that lack of appreciation.
A few days before the show’s opening at Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn, New York, where Fairview is running through July 28, Sibblies Drury and I spoke while having tacos and margaritas at a restaurant across the street.
The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
The night that I saw Fairview, people were shell-shocked as they filed out. Is that always the reaction?
The audience changes every night. I know that actors have to alter their performances based on the energy that they’re getting from the audience. If a line that normally gets a laugh doesn’t get a laugh, you sort of pause and you feel a little bit like a schmuck for a second.
If people find the first act of the show really funny, generally in the second act of the show the audience is really quiet. And then if people are more quiet in the first act, and less sure of how to interact with that kind of humor, then sometimes they’re much more vocal in the second act. At the end of the show … it’s awkward. And it’s sort of by design.
Sarah Benson, who directed it, and Raja [Feather Kelly], who is the choreographer, talked a lot about whether or not to play music even as the audience is leaving the theater space and how it was really good to let people sit in their awkwardness. … Much of the show is so ugly that letting it be awkward at the end feels appropriate.
Tell me a little bit about watching people watch your work.
My first play [We Are Proud to Present] was at Soho Rep seven or eight years ago. The director and I put the audience mostly around the sides of the room so that everyone would watch each other during the show. It was also a show about race in that it was about both white and black people imagining Africa and projecting themselves onto it. And then in trying to talk about Africa, they end up bringing up American racial trauma because it’s really hard to see black and white dynamics and not think about that. Theater people spend a lot of time watching audiences in all shows. But it was nice to let the audience know that that was a part of it just by the staging of it, and not an accident.
I am a little bit obsessed with watching whiteness and blackness. I do think that it was about going to see a lot of plays in my teens, 20s, 30s, and often being the only person of color in an audience and often feeling very visible in that way. And even welcomed in a very ‘So what brought you to the play? We’re so happy to have you,’ on the good end of the spectrum. And then if I ever did anything wrong, if I forgot to turn off my cellphone, I’m feeling very not welcome in that space.
So I feel like watching white audiences watch the work of people that I respect and admire who are people of color, and seeing how the audience changes the work, I feel is a big part. Just acknowledging the inherent power dynamic in that and how that feels connected to power dynamics in society. It just felt like this weird, dense metaphor.
Has this ever been performed in front of a completely POC [people of color] audience?
It would be a really different experience if it was for all POC because the space would have been granted. For a little while, I thought that it would be impossible to do it without having any white people in the audience. I feel like the whole play would be more joyful maybe? And less uncomfortable. But maybe that’s not true.
What was your experience like at Yale?
Weird. Deeply, like, deeply odd.
Tell us more.
I went to a private school in New Jersey. And I knew what rich people were, so I was, like, there are people at my [high] school that are members of the country club, and that is wealth. And then I got to Yale, and I was like, whoa, whoa. And I thought, I just hadn’t experienced people that had access to literally everything their entire lives.
I remember going to the freshman quad thing and having someone close the door behind them and not let me in because they thought that I was from New Haven and not from Yale, and I was like, what? Why? I just had no understanding of any of that. But I had it a lot easier than a lot of people because I was also a weird theater kid, so I fell in with the weird theater kids, which was helpful.
Seeing people that were actually entitled, like very, very, very entitled, expected everything from the world and expected the world would greet them with open arms and give them whatever they wanted, was helpful. I don’t think that I would be thinking that I could write things that other people would find interesting if I hadn’t been completely drowned in that kind of psychotic self-interest, and so I’m really grateful for that.
Your mom introduced you to theater?
She worked for a supermarket company. When I was in middle school, high school, she was in charge of the frozen food department for this New York-, New Jersey-, Connecticut-based supermarket company, Pathmark. One of the perks was that people that were coming out with a new ice cream brand would be like, ‘Let’s wine and dine you. And we’ll send you to a Broadway show.’ Because she was divorced, she would take me. So I would get to go see Cats and Les Mis and stuff.
It was so awesome. And you get free dinner at some place in Times Square that was fancy. I was really into lobster tails at the time. I was like, ‘What’s the fanciest, most expensive thing I can get on this menu?’ I was like, ‘I don’t even know if I like them, but you get butter. And they’re expensive. So I’ll have three!’
My mom was always an incredibly avid reader and consumer of culture. It’s funny, in the last 10 years, I’ve dragged her to see all this superweird s— downtown. And I’m like, ‘It’s going to be great, mom. Someone is going to get naked and they’re going to throw their own feces at the back wall of the stage.’ But now she’ll go and see a show on Broadway and she’ll be like, ‘I don’t know, I found it derivative.’ And I’m like, ‘Yes. I’ve made you a theater snob!’
Soho Rep, where Fairview premiered, is so intimate, with just 65 seats, and I imagine that ratchets up the level of discomfort. How do you preserve that in moving to the 299-seat Theatre for a New Audience?
Part of the reason that we wanted to be in this space is that even though it’s bigger, it’s not a 500-seat theater or a 1,000-seat theater. And there is something about the balconies and the acoustics that no one is so far away from the stage or from someone else in the audience. And you can see other audience members from everywhere. I feel like there are some theaters that roll out and it gets very dark in the house, and you feel like the people onstage can’t even hear you if you said anything. We were all interested in still having people feel like they could participate in the events and in the experience of the play, and that they could hear other people in the audience as it was happening.
What’s it like, having a Pulitzer? Have you thought about it much?
No. I mean, only when I’ve changed lines in a rehearsal room. And the actors have been like, ‘You really want to change the lines of the Pulitzer-winning play?!’ And I’m like, ‘Well, yeah. Now you need a longer exit line, so we’re going to change.’
I realize I do have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder in a lot of different ways. And anything that can be seen as validating can also be explained away. As many people as there are like, ‘Wow. The Pulitzers really got it right, so great for you, hurray,’ there are equally as many people that I have, thankfully, not talked to that much that are like, ‘What an off year. The Pulitzers are trying to follow a trend. This is such bulls—, and this is devaluing the Pulitzer.’
And so it’s like, yay? I don’t know. I should be happier about it. I should just be purely happy.
Does your husband ever remind you that you’re great?
He’s actually really good about that. … And then also, ‘I know you won an award and everything, but do you want to do a dish once in a while?’ But I say that with love. He’s incredibly supportive in a lot of ways. Emotional, physical, mental, he’s great. I’m very lucky. Not to be a sap.
Did you talk with your grandmother and mother much about race?
I think that my mom had a very particular experience. She’s Jamaican, but my grandmother is white and eventually married my mother’s father, who was a black man, but they were both Jamaican. So my mom grew up with a very different conception about an interracial relationship, or interracial wasn’t a word that she heard until she came to America. She has never referred to herself as biracial. She’s just a black Jamaican person in her mind. And I think moving near Newark in the early ’70s, when there were race riots happening, it was like America is racist and terrifying. But I think that she didn’t think about race that much before coming to America.
There’s definitely an immigrant filter that you see race through.
For West Indian people, generally, historically, colorism is a huge issue. I feel like my mom was more sensitive to that than she was to race in some ways, and thinking about what it meant to be treated differently from a cousin because she had lighter skin than them or darker skin than them. A lot of her sense of fairness and equality is shade-oriented rather than race-oriented. And in some ways that was really helpful for me growing up in terms of feeling kinship with lots of different minorities.
I feel like my mom was like, ‘Americans were racist. You have to be careful.’ And she’d be like, ‘Jamaicans are sexist. So you have to be careful.’ Not wrong. I just think it’s more complicated.