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Peter N. Bailey and Ordena Stephens-Thompson in Fairview.John Lauener/Berkeley Street Theatre

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  • Title: Fairview
  • Written by: Jackie Sibblies Drury
  • Director: Tawiah M’Carthy
  • Actors: Peter N. Bailey, Sascha Cole, Jennifer Dzialoszynski, Jeff Lillico
  • Company: Canadian Stage
  • Venue: Berkeley Street Theatre
  • Year: Continues to March 26

Critic’s pick

A friend and I used to play a game before seeing something at one of Canada’s big prestigious theatre festivals – it doesn’t matter which one. Before the show started, we would try to count the number of visible minority theatre audience members milling about in the lobby and entering the theatre. The number was almost always depressingly low, especially if the show wasn’t a musical.

After watching – “experiencing” might be a better word – Jackie Sibblies Drury’s provocative, Pulitzer Prize-winning cri de coeur of a play, Fairview, I suspect the playwright used to play a similar game. There’s certainly enough anger and intimate knowledge about the theatre industry in her script; knowledge about what’s onstage, who’s in the audience and how that audience perceives what it’s watching.

The play, a co-production between Canadian Stage and Obsidian Theatre, begins conventionally enough. In a handsome, blandly tasteful home (set designer is Jawon Kang), a Black woman named Beverly (Ordena Stephens-Thompson) is preparing a celebratory birthday dinner for her mother, who’s upstairs. When her husband Dayton (Peter N. Bailey) surprises her by silently watching as she applies makeup in front of a pretend mirror, she turns around and says, “What are you looking at?!”

Remember that line. It informs everything that’s to come, and it will linger in your mind as you leave the theatre some 90 minutes later, prodded, provoked and possibly incensed.

For the first half hour or so, what we are looking at is a heightened recreation of a typical sitcom featuring the comfortable couple, Beverly’s stylish, opinionated sister Jasmine (Sophia Walker) and their daughter Keisha (Chelsea Russell), who confesses to her aunt that she wants to take a gap year before starting college, even though Beverly is against it.

The sisters drink wine and exchange barbs; the married couple bicker over silverware and root vegetables; Jasmine visits her mother upstairs; Beverly gets a phone call from her brother Tyrone saying that he won’t be able to attend the birthday dinner; she also kiboshes Keisha’s gap-year idea. Oh, and what about the cake? Who’s looking after that cake?

Tawiah M’Carthy directs this familiar, initially undemanding material beautifully, from the contrived entrances and exits to the oversized performances. The only thing that’s missing is a laugh track.

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Fairview is a co-production between Canadian Stage and Obsidian Theatre.John Lauener/Berkeley Street Theatre

And yet even here there are hints that things aren’t quite as they seem in this metaphorical matrix. At the top of the act, while listening to music, Beverly notices a speaker emitting feedback before it returns to normal (Miquelon Rodriguez’s sound design is subtly effective). Near the end of the act, Keisha addresses the audience in an aside.

That’s nothing, though, compared to what happens in the second act, a physical recreation of the first but with a new soundtrack. As the actors silently go through the motions of what we’ve just witnessed, four unseen white people – whose aural entrances cleverly seem to mimic those of the characters onstage – discuss race and culture, complete with every privileged assumption, stereotype and contradiction you can imagine.

That, in turn, prepares us for the third and most radical act, which feels like a logical extension of the first two but goes to a place that feels brave, bold and necessary. You could call it Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and a Food Fight. Yes, I’m being intentionally vague about what happens. Don’t let anyone ruin the surprise for you.

With conceptually rich, self-reflexive plays like this, it’s tempting to focus on the ideas and ignore the artistry. But the performances, even though exaggerated and stylized, are richly realized.

Stephens-Thompson, who starred in two seasons of TV’s ‘Da Kink In My Hair (and its recent 20th anniversary stage revival), has mastered the art of the sitcom side-eye and doing redundant stage business, all while suggesting a more complex woman beneath the cliché. Walker and Bailey play off her delightfully. And Sascha Cole, Colin A. Doyle, Jennifer Dzialoszynski and Jeff Lillico, costumed with cringeworthy perfection by Rachel Forbes, manage to do and say the most offensive things gamely.

But it’s Russell, so lively in last season’s Pipeline, who gets the deepest, most difficult and probing part, especially in a monologue in which she has to interact with the audience and make us understand – feel – what she’s going through. Exuding empathy and ambivalence, she draws us in masterfully.

The Black Lives Matter movement and the two-year theatre shutdown forced many companies to look at their programming and audience development, their boards, their internal practices. In responding to their often problematic histories, many theatres claimed, as if on auto-pilot, that they would “listen and learn.”

Fairview – the title, like everything about it, has multiple meanings – goes further. It asks people to listen, learn, change, and be accountable.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)