Theater directors rarely take on plays they don’t like, but that’s exactly how Jada Suzanne Dixon’s relationship with Eric Coble’s Fairfield began. When Len Matheo, artistic director for Miners Alley Playhouse, where the play opens this weekend, asked Dixon if she’d be willing to direct, she agreed to read the script. “I found myself slightly offended, not laughing out loud, shaking my head in disbelief,” she recalls.
Still a little curious, she asked some women directors she respected if they’d mounted scripts that troubled them. “All of them said, ‘Don’t let that turn you away if there’s something there that intrigues or challenges you, that makes you want to dig deeper,’” she remembers.
That made Dixon wonder: “What as an artist of color do I bring to the table? If I were to take on the journey, what might be possible?” She laughs. “This play is a crazy jaunt.”
Adding to the stress of decision-making was the fact that this regional premiere of Fairfield would be Dixon's first directorial assignment and represents a significant step. While she'd worked behind the scenes as an assistant director, “this is definitely new territory,” she admits. “It’s scary and exhilarating.” Local theater-goers know Dixon primarily as a terrific actor who has starred in roles as diverse as an impoverished single mother visiting her imprisoned brother in Bruce Graham’s searing White Guy on the Bus at Curious Theatre and a polished, ambitious political wife who models herself on Michelle Obama in Local Theater Company’s production of Meridith Friedman’s The Firestorm .
Playwright Coble’s work has also been seen locally. His Bright Ideas showed at the Avenue Theater four years ago; it begins as a gentle comedy about a couple desperately striving to get their four-year-old into the most prestigious local kindergarten and spirals into savage farce. Fairfield is equally savage and equally hilarious. It takes place in a progressive neighborhood with a liberal elementary school that has just hired an African-American principal. An earnest young white teacher whose intentions are impeccable has her students do an exercise that “goes horribly wrong and sends the rest of the school world spinning,” says Dixon.
Talking to Dixon and her cast via Skype, Coble explained that the play is deliberately provocative. The seed for the plot was planted when he learned that his first-grade children's teachers had held successful discussions with them about race, and he wondered what would happen if those conversations weren’t skillfully handled.
In Fairfield, “everyone’s offensive,” Dixon says. “Nobody’s off the hook. It’s allowed us as a cast to have interesting conversations. There’s language it’s not okay to use outside the context of this play.” Over time, she found the group becoming “accountable to each other, a company of collaborators working together.”
Dixon believes strongly in the power of theater to challenge and motivate. Plays shouldn’t send an audience “screaming from the theater,” she says, but should provide “a way to look at things deeply and that allows us to finally start talking: 'We may not be good at this.' That’s okay. It’s okay for it to be messy. Clean and perfect I’m not sure that it can be, but to help us get to the other side.”
She stresses the importance of language, too: “Many of us are losing sight of how much words can hurt and humiliate. We have to get back to words used to help.”
Dixon’s own path to this place was intriguing. “I wasn’t a theater kid,” she says. “In junior high, I was failing math. I had strict parents, and I needed to take an easy A class, so I thought, why not drama?’ My favorite English teacher taught that class, so how hard could it be? And, of course, it was weird and hard. I heard language I’d never heard before, found a whole new world. I had fun and it scared the crap out of me. Today, it still scares the crap out of me.”
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Over the past four or five years, Dixon's acting work has become progressively deeper and more expressive. An extreme introvert, she says that “theater was a way of saying I don’t have to let people see me. I can actually hide behind somebody else’s words and just bring pieces of me to the role to make it fuller.” But she also came to believe that approach was a disservice to both actor and audience, and wondered, “What would happen if you allowed people to see you?”
As she searched for “the intersection between art and social justice," she recalls, she became more thoughtful and more daring. “As a woman, as you get older, you get a better sense of yourself and let go of some previous junk around what people think, whether they like you," she explains.
"I finally allowed myself to be present in the entire journey.”
Fairfield, presented by Miners Alley Playhouse, opens Friday, July 12 (see a preview for only $15 on July 10), and runs through August 18 at 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden. For more information, call 303-935-3044 or go to minersalley.com.