Eric Coble knows his new play, Fairfield, might offend people. He just hopes they'll laugh along the way. The play, running May 1-31 at the Cleveland Play House, deals with the most fraught issue on both the local and national stage: race.
"It's possibly the riskiest play that I've ever written," says Coble.
Yet despite the hefty topic, he still manages to keep things light. "By getting people to laugh, they're more willing to go deeper," he explains. "There are certainly valid dramas about [race]. But in terms of examining some of these issues, humor can be a good way to break things up. Then we see the ridiculousness of it."
The play kicks off with a white, 20-something teacher at Fairfield Elementary, who takes it upon herself to address race in America. To celebrate Black History Month, she has the class partake in a race-based spelling bee with words such as "King" and "Tubman," alongside "booty" and "chitlins."
"She has fantastic intentions and no skills, which is really dangerous," says Coble.
After a black school administrator stops the bee, the teacher ups the ante and decides to do role-playing exercises with her class — one half as slave owners and the other as slaves. "It lends itself to comedy because all of us are just like 'Oh no, don't do that,'" says Coble.
Although the show is about children, no kids ever appear onstage. "There's a potential statement there," he says. "The children are actually invisible even though they're claimed to be the center of [the adults'] lives."
Coble also avoids bringing money into the debate by setting the play in a middle-class suburb. "Class is such a huge issue and another thing that's potentially hard to talk about," says Coble. "But I didn't want to tackle those two huge things in one play."
When Coble sat down to write the first scenes two years ago at the Coffee House at University Circle, race was not a part of the national conversation the way it is today. "Now you can't see this play and not think about Ferguson, [Missouri], and Tamir [Rice]," says Coble.
During the play's first live performance, a barebones affair at last year's New Ground Theatre Festival, Coble was worried. "I didn't sit near the exit, but I wish I did just in case I needed to get out of there fast," he jokes.
Instead, the audience gave it a standing ovation. "I'm sure there will be people who are very angry about it," says Coble. "But hopefully it will stir the conversation."