How Do You Act When You Don't Know How the Audience Will React?
By HALEY CHOUINARD
Friday, June 29, 2018  •  
Fri Jun 29, 2018  •  
Acting  •   0 comments Share This
"The actor's job is to listen and respond to your scene partner. The difference is that here my scene partner becomes an entire room of people."

MaYaa Boateng talks about the challenges of her role in Fairview

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Jackie Sibblies Drury's Fairview starts out like a naturalistic family dramedy, as a well-to-do African-American woman named Beverly (Heather Alicia Simms) prepares to host a birthday party for her mother. As her kin arrive, including her teenage daughter Keisha portrayed by MaYaa Boateng, things go predictably awry -- until everything shifts and the audience realizes this isn't the play they thought they were watching.

To reveal too much more would spoil the harrowing experience of Fairview, a perspective-bending examination of our country's racial divide. As the narrative morphs from familiar to surreal, Keisha is the only character who notices. "She can sense that something is changing for her," Boateng says. "Something is slipping away and she can't quite put her finger on it. It's really scary for her."

Boateng, who graduated from NYU Tisch's Graduate Acting School last year, says she relates to Keisha's predicament of trying to navigate a world that often tries to negate her existence. "It's a feeling that I have definitely experienced," she says. "It's damaging, degrading and traumatic for so many people of color. That's what this play is illuminating."

As things unravel, the heavy lifting falls on Keisha as the fourth wall comes down. The show's ending involves the audience, so it couldn't be fully rehearsed until previews started. That made Fairview's early performances as unpredictable for Boateng as the spectators. "In any form, regardless of the show, the actor's job is to listen and respond to your scene partner," she says. "The difference is that here my scene partner becomes an entire room of people. It's unlike anything I've ever experienced before."

MaYaa Boateng and Heather Alicia Simms in
MaYaa Boateng and Heather Alicia Simms in 'Fairview'

Fairview is largely about perception, specifically the way black people and black culture are viewed in our society. It's loaded subject matter that inspires strong reactions. "It's a tricky place that I'm put into, not knowing who's going to respond," she says. The overwhelming majority of audiences have been respectful, but once she was met with an upset reply. Boateng's first instinct was to answer as she would in real life, but that wouldn't serve the play. So she took a deep breath, improvised a little and then got the conversation back on track. "I knew that I had a script to stick to." she says.

Accepting that the show elicits an intense range of feedback was a turning point for Boateng. "People hate it. People love it. People are overflowing with questions," she says. "People are like, 'Why did you put me through that?' We're asking people to see things differently and that's going to invite many different responses. And I understand now that every reaction is okay and valid and right."

Now that she's midway through Fairview's recently extended run, Boateng has learned to appreciate this unusual role. "My favorite part of this is working through that," she says. "That's a beautiful thing for me every night and I wouldn't rather be doing anything else, no matter how crazy it gets."

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Follow Haley Chouinard at @HaleyChouinard. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: MaYaa Boateng in Fairview. Photos by Julieta Cervantes.

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