Some plays dealing with race go deep and angry — I’m thinking of Branden Jacob-Jenkins’s Appropriate , produced two years ago at Curious Theatre, which paradoxically features an all-white cast and takes us into the bleakest depths of this country’s history. Some utilize comedy in the service of truth-telling: Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies (Aurora Fox in January). Some take place in middle-class living rooms and feature cleverly spiked humor. Others are flat-out shocking, like White Guy on a Bus (Curious again, in 2016). But playwright Eric Coble blows all convention apart with blasts of evil laughter in Fairfield, now in a regional premiere at Miners Alley.
Fairfield is a farcical comedy about a liberal elementary school in a liberal district headed by a newly appointed black principal, Angela Wadley (a splendid Sheryl McCallum). Angela is a proud centrist — dignified, experienced and moderate, politically aware but hyper-careful in what she says, does and condones. But then she gets saddled with teacher Laurie Kaminski (played by Adeline Mann as childish, bright-eyed and adorably irritating), hired only because she’s the superintendent’s niece, and brimming with exciting ideas for Black History Month. These include a vocabulary test using the words booty, chitlins and watermelon, creating a play based on the powerful television miniseries Roots, and — uh-oh — an exercise in which the children become either slaves or slave owners and act out their roles. There’s a sort of precedent for the latter in Milgram’s famous psychology experiment that had participants administering apparent shocks to “learners” at orders from authority figures, and another experiment at Stanford where half the students became guards and others prisoners; neither ended well. And Miss Kaminski’s lab rats are first-graders.
Of course, there’s trouble between two of the kids — one black, one white — and soon their parents are in Miss Wadley’s office. They argue with each other; the situation escalates. If you saw Coble’s Bright Ideas at Avenue Theater and remember the bright-green face of a murdered woman rising slowly from a plate of poisoned pesto, you know he’ll spin any plot point to what seems the furthest verge of possibility, and then beyond.
The liberal white couple soon reveals the extent of their unconscious racism, the husband, Scott, more dopily than his wife, Molly, who has the language of the race issue down but still harbors deep-seated prejudices (Brian Landis Folkins and MacKenzie Beyer do well in the roles). And if the wronged black couple, Vanessa and Daniel (a charming Kristina Fountaine and Sinjin Jones, who’s calmly wise on the surface), seem more virtuous at first, they’re not. No one in Fairfield is right, and everyone’s wrong. Including the majestic Angela, who likes Laurie Kaminski about as much as Nancy Pelosi likes the AOC-led four-woman progressive squad. And she, too, is gaffe-prone: The speaker she invites to the school turns out to be an elderly Black Panther who urges the kids to rise up and kill the honky. Unless that’s just how an agitated Angela remembers it.
Coble is interested in the language we use when race is the topic. The school's motto is “Love. Respect for All,” and he makes much satirical use of those anodyne phrases: dialoguing, mutual success, appropriate, while gleefully tossing forbidden and incendiary words into the mix.
I don’t think Fairfield brings new insight to the knotty problem of racism — at least not in any linear way. But under the swift, skilled hand of Jada Suzanne Dixon, making her directorial debut, it accomplishes something perhaps more significant. The opening-night audience was around 25 percent African-American and 75 percent white, and throughout the evening, the place was filled with gales of laughter. Sometimes it seemed the black folk laughed louder or got the joke faster, or the whites responded with more gasps of guilty recognition. But —eyes wet with tears of laughter — we all got swept away together by the same crazy tide.
Laughter may not be enough in this time of rage and racist violence, but Shakespeare thought it powerful. In As You Like It, he had the melancholy trickster Jaques request the role of court fool: “Invest me in my motley," he says. "Give me leave/ To speak my mind, and I will through and through/ Cleanse the foul body of the infected world/ If it will patiently receive my medicine.”
Fairfield, presented by Miners Alley Playhouse through August 18, 1224 Washington Avenue, Golden, 303-935-3044, minersalley.com.
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