Close on the heels of the invasion of the U.S. Capitol by hundreds of racists and anti-Semites, what better time to stage a play about race relations?
A completely hilarious comedy about race relations, that is.
The Pear Theatre in Mountain View is offering a video-recorded version of Eric Coble's satire/farce, "Fairfield," which features desperately sincere people trying to cross the racial divide — and pratfalling in the process.
In the show, Miss Kaminski, a brand-new and overeager young (white) teacher, has a very ambitious plan for teaching her first-graders about Black History Month.
"Don't you want to celebrate your own heritage?" she asks her principal, who is Black. "No," says the principal.
"But, it's such a gift! To all of us!" says the teacher.
"You know what part of the world my people came from, Miss Kaminski?" the principal replies. "New Jersey. I feel no need to celebrate that."
Her lesson plan somewhat pared down, Miss Kaminski still gets her students to stop pouring milk on each other and putting crayons in their ears long enough for an ill-fated Black History Month role-playing game, during which a discouraged word is heard.
Tense parent meetings in the principal's office ensue.
Coble's play is about "community and race and tolerance," according to Jennifer Bradford, who plays one of the parents brought into the school to discuss what happened in that first-grade class. "Everyone is trying to be understood, but getting all mashed up.
"It's about racism, so blatant, pulled into your focus, so much so that you can't avoid it, can't dodge it," she said. "All that's in the play, addressed in humor, like farce."
Robert Sean Campbell, who plays another of the parents, said it's also a look at how schools and parents can struggle with difficult conversations. "About what their kids say, and how that reflects on them, and how they move through it."
Campbell said he hasn't previously "done subject matter so real, so heavy, so topical … it's difficult to get the importance of it while still making it hilarious."
The Pear, like pretty much every other theater company in developed nations, has been struggling with finding ways to reach audiences of devoted fans during the COVID-19 crises. A good cast was assembled for a recorded production of "Lysistrata" last autumn, but that video, in this critic's experience, was a technical mess.
But Artistic Director Sinjin Jones said his plan is to try something different for every video production, and for "Fairfield," the plan is certainly different, and certainly challenging.
The rehearsals, via Zoom, have been going well, according to Bradford, Campbell and Jones. The show is being directed by Jones and the esteemed Bay Area actor and educator Aldo Billingslea (longtime acquaintances Bradford and Campbell actually met years ago when in the theater program at Santa Clara University, where they were taught by Billingslea).
The performance itself will be where the true challenge happens: Each actor will go alone to a set in the theater, joined by other actors via Zoom. For instance, Bradford acts in The Pear, accompanied by castmate Terrance Smith via Zoom; then Smith goes to the Pear to do the scene, with Bradford joining via Zoom.
It will be up to Jones, who has a background in filmmaking, to stitch together all the pieces into one coherent package.
It may be a "logistical nightmare," said Campbell. But, he added, "I am looking forward to seeing the end product, seeing how it works out."
What's tricky about it, of course, is that timing is one of the most important aspects of any comedy. But timing in a regular production is hard enough; in this puzzle box of a play, it will be very difficult to achieve.
Jones said they've set the action "during COVID times, so most of the play works live to Zoom, gives it an interesting perspective." Some scenes will be set as video calls, while the trickiest will involve two shots being put together with the actors pretending they're next to each other.
This production process "still requires acting techniques," Bradford said, but "it's hard to build community in a virtual way.
"Normally, you can sit next to somebody (in a production) and get a feel for who they are. Bumping into the assistant stage manager to remind you of your entrance times. It's important to bring that energy in rehearsal."
It's like filmmaking, in a way.
"This technique is not completely foreign," she said. "You can't let it throw you. You don't have the interruptions to the flow, the interactions with the audience. You have to imagine that you get interrupted but continue going (as in a live stage production)."
But, "Sinjin and Aldo have done great work. It's been great to rehearse that way ... I think it will work. I think people will enjoy it," she said. "I hope they will talk about it."
"Fairfield" is available Jan. 22 through Feb. 21. Tickets are $30-$34. More information is available at thepear.org.
Freelance writer John Orr can be emailed at [email protected]