A Recipe for Disaster: Paradigms of Race in Fairview, by Emma Jiahe Qian

A Recipe for Disaster: Paradigms of Race in Fairview, by Emma Jiahe Qian

About the Author:

I am a second year Social Science student, entering McGill in Psychology next fall, and then (hopefully) grad school. I have always loved reading, but if I have recently learned to love the discussions and writing that come with it, it is all thanks to my professor, Alyson Grant. These two essays (one on Asking For It – on the dangers of rape myths, and the other on Fairview – exploring paradigms of race) are the fruit of the work we have done together, and it was an absolute pleasure to study such works.

Emma Qian

Prof. Alyson Grant

English 103: Family Dramas

A Recipe for Disaster: Paradigms of Race in Fairview

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fairview interrogates and denounces the deeply rooted patterns of racism and oppression in America. What begins as a typical family drama quickly sours, and the three-act structure progressively topples the apparent normality of the play. The Frasiers, a Black family living in a nice neighbourhood, scramble to put together a celebratory dinner where nothing goes right. From the start, the evening is underscored by an air of unshakeable uncanniness: something is off. That unease is exacerbated in Act 2, as the story onstage rewinds and begins anew. Foreign voices that play over loudspeakers overtake the scene in a careless discussion about race and racism, literally talking over the Frasiers’ actions. In Act 3, the voices’ owners, four white characters, invade the scene in Black ‘roles’, playing the parts of the rest of the Frasier family, infesting, and derailing the dinner party with their prejudiced opinions and their loud, disruptive presences. A breaking of the fourth wall in Act 3 aims to stir white audience members who might consider themselves exempt from blame. It urges them to confront the racist mentalities that may frighteningly  echo their own and to re-examine the roles they play in these oppressive systems. Within this complex structure, Drury uses a common thread of food and eating to expose the subjugation and oppression that continues to plague Black bodies.

The association between enslavement and labour is established in the play’s first stage directions: “Lights up on a [n-word]: Beverly is peeling carrots” (Drury 7). The use of the n-word paired with Beverly’s figure labouring in the kitchen immediately evokes the ugly history of the enslavement of Black peoples across the Americas. From that first line on, as the preparations progress and the doorbell threatens to ring, Beverly becomes increasingly overwhelmed by the magnitude of labour required to put together such a feast. Between the carrots, roast, cake, chilled wine, and silverware, she constantly feels like she is running “so behind” (8). Keisha, Beverly’s daughter, also gets dragged into her mother’s whirlwind, forced to perpetuate the cycle as Beverly declares that “what Keisha needs to do”, more importantly than having fun at the party, “is to go on in that kitchen and check on her grandmother’s birthday cake, and help her mother out today” (28). The evening of celebration becomes a burden and this constant labour of preparing the food is a grim reminder,  initiated upon the play’s shocking opening, of the servitude that is expected of Black bodies.

The dinner is an occasion to celebrate the birthday of Mama, Beverly’s mother, who is the guest of honour seated “at the head of the table” (9). Beverly reiterates the importance of pleasing her throughout the preparations, chastising her sister and reminding her that “today isn’t about you. And it isn’t about me. It’s about Mama” (13). The wholesome and thoughtful nature of the party takes a turn, however, when Mama descends the stairs in  Act 3 for the first time and it is revealed that this important Black matriarch is in reality “Suze, one of the [white] women who has been listening” (79). All this painful labour turns out to have been in service of Suze, who is unveiled to be acting as the embodiment of whiteness in Black lives:

KEISHA. I’d call you. Not Grandma. I’d call you.

SUZE. You’d call me white.

KEISHA. I’d call you white. Yes. (101)

Through the Frasiers’ interactions with Mama, the dynamics of servitude, obedience, and reverence that whiteness expects from them become painfully apparent. In fact, even when dinner is finally served, Beverly still spends her time fussing over Mama’s needs: “Mama do you want me to fix you a plate?”; “Is this enough food for you Mama?,”; “Do you want me to cut it up for you Mama?” (81-82). To see her serve and work to please this white woman makes the scene that much more appalling.

Suze is problematic even before her grand entrance. In Act 2, for example, her answer to an archetypically racist white man, Jimbo, who asks, “If you could choose to be a different race, what race would you be?” (32) is that she would choose to become African American for Mabel. Mabel is a Black woman who was essentially working as her family’s servant, and who “made everything [she] ate until [she] was like in college, basically” (51).  Suze, from her distorted and privileged view, simultaneously felt like she “loved her” (51), but that she felt also “so self-conscious” (59) and “ashamed of that [love]” (59). She justifies the terrible, cruel reality of Black servitude, believing she treated Mabel “like she is [her] family” (52) when, more accurately, Suze was just another racist oppressor. The exotification of Mabel’s “otherness” and the actual prejudice Suze harbours are evident as she brags about “[growing] up eating cornbread and collard greens. Like food that regular peopled don’t even eat” (51). Through their perceived connection through food and eating, in Suze’s mind, not only is Black labour expected, it becomes glorified and romanticized.

Another way in which the oppression of Black lives is laid bare is through the pressure to conform to the expectations of the white gaze. Repeated across the white characters’ dialogue throughout Act 2 is the emphasis on the burning cake that they watch the Frasiers scramble to fix, as Jimbo ignorantly jokes, “it’s a cakewalk!” (63). Ironically, he is indeed right. A cakewalk, historically, was a contest held by white owners who forced Black enslaved performers to dance for their entertainment. These dancers recreated caricatures ridiculing their masters, who, either completely oblivious or obtusely arrogant, did not object to this mockery. They ultimately awarded the prize, a piece of cake, to the best performer, in a demonstration of their utter dominance and authority. At the end of Act 2, Jimbo delivers an escalating rant that becomes increasingly deranged and frankly terrifying, exposing in an absurd metaphor a deep-seated truth:

JIMBO. I win everything,


Because you know what?

All those motherfuckers are watching my fucking movie.

And rooting for whatever the fuck they want

In my fucking movie.

Like, you want to make me the villain?

That’s fine because you’re in my fucking movie. (72)

At the same time this angry tirade is heard throughout the theatre, on stage the Frasiers are performing a strange and disturbing routine:

And they dance and put out a whole other set of plates of food and bowls of food,

dancing so Joyfully and so Well,

and the fake foods get stranger and stranger, in different ways, some of it is faker and some of it is less food-like,

and the family brings it all out of the kitchen while dancing,

and smiling, with glee,

and puts it on the table, piling it up,

maybe till it threatens overflow the table,

and maybe at one point there is a Conga line of fake food. (78)

The optics are undeniable. Jimbo is the white master watching the cakewalk unfold with the immovable assurance that, at the end of the evening, he will decide this family’s fate. To witness both song and dance simultaneously, in increasing intensity and frenzy, is viscerally unsettling. The image of this family having to bring out more and more fake food to feed the insatiable hunger of this white man and his rampage is uncanny and disturbing. Clearly, this serving of the food, as well as the rest of the dinner, is a performance put on to please and entertain a watchful master.

Even before this hateful rant, a current of constant fear and tension underscores the night, poignantly exposing another aspect of Black oppression. From the start of the evening, Beverly’s stress is high, every misstep threatening to send her into a panic, and eventually, “Beverly faints, spilling carrots all over the floor” (29), a worrisome sign of the toll this strain takes on her wellbeing.  Later, even when dinner is finally served and any crisis seems averted, still “Beverly hovers nervously” (81).  This anxiety is frustrating. After all, it’s just a party! But Beverly cannot shake this sense of nervousness gnawing at her:

BEVERLY. If Mama doesn’t enjoy this birthday dinner, then-

JASMINE. Then what?

BEVERLY. I don’t know Jasmine, I just don’t know. (21)

This elusive but alarming threat continuously looms over the evening.

The cakewalk culminates in Act 3 the moment the white characters burst into the scene in their offensive Black ‘roles’. Jimbo, Suze, Mack, and Bets want to “experience” Blackness for a day, and as they all sit around the table and “pretend to eat” (78), it becomes glaringly obvious that the Frasiers are little more than props used to fulfill this fantasy. This set, of course, has to be “very authentic(55), and cannot deviate from the white characters’ preconceptions of Black families. They shape reality into what they see fit, their white gaze dictating this family’s life to satisfy their needs. At one point, Jimbo gets served a beer, to which he remarks, “No no no. This isn’t the kind of beer you’d have. [..] Don’t you have like… I don’t know a forty or something. Like a Colt 45?”  (86). Beverly checks the fridge again, and perhaps unsurprisingly, they now do. This is one example of a larger pattern that persists throughout the evening as the white characters ceaselessly barrage this family with racist expectations, culminating in Dayton losing the family’s money to gambling, Beverly becoming a drug addict, and Keisha ending up as another pregnant teen stereotype. The white gaze, with its power and privilege, can turn perception into reality.

The constant, suffocating fear that afflicts Beverly is exhausting. It might even seem foolish, if not for the very real and devastating danger that emerges in the third act. As the white characters continue to intrude and dictate the course of the evening, the casual racism quickly devolves into physical violence as Jimbo throws the first blow that initiates a food fight:

Jimbo, Mack, Bets and Suze are the aggressors,


Some of it is silly, but eventually the silly gives way to violence

That feels more consequential.

Something is actually broken.

The set feels destroyed. (98)

The fight initially might seem innocuous and lighthearted, but the rapid degeneration into brutality and the white characters’ immediate propensity to aggressivity – taking the food served to them and throwing it back in an act of violence – is far more serious. At any moment, violence could erupt and destroy this family.

Throughout the play, one person who seems to understand the troubled dynamics that surround her is Keisha, the youngest Frasier. She attempts to defy the norms and questions the blatant injustices she witnesses. Toward the end of Act 3, while everyone else is serving themselves, Keisha seems greatly troubled and reluctant to eat:

JASMINE. Why aren’t you eating baby?

KEISHA. It’s not… Um. I’m just confused. I guess.

JASMINE. What’s the matter Keisha?

KEISHA. I’m just a little out of it. I- (81)

She senses that “something is wrong” (82) with the situation and with this food, like “a pit in [her] stomach” (82) that she can’t shake, her refusal to eat a silent but firm resistance to this reality. Beverly brushes off her daughter’s malaise: “I don’t know. Teenagers” (81). It is a hint at the generational divide that governs their mentalities. Keisha, and the emerging generation of young minds, might be the ones who will finally see the issues their parents failed to see and change the script entirely.

In fact, it is Keisha who in the ultimate moments of the play “steps through the fourth wall” (102) and addresses the audience directly for the first time. She challenges the white audience members to evaluate their power as holders of the white gaze. She pushes them to get up from the comfortable seats and stand, for once, under the blinding lights, to “touch the fake food” (104) and feel the burden of having to perform for others. She compels them to contemplate and experience this reversal of roles and the devastating, violent impacts of racism and oppression. Come up on stage, she invites; come up and “make yourself a plate” (102).


Works Cited

Drury, Jackie S. Fairview. Theatre Communications Group, 2019.



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