'Fairfield' a biting comedy about race

Scenery seamlessly glides on and off while actors are raised and lowered via an automatically opening and closing spot on the small stage of the intimate, thrust-configured Outcalt Theatre.

It's in this space that the Cleveland Play House is world-premiering a pit bull-teeth-sharp, relevant satire with belly laughs titled "Fairfield."
You can't help but wonder: If only discussing race were as easy as the manner in which the scenic elements and actors enter and exit via technology.
But in Cleveland playwright Eric Coble's smart, insightful and deftly structured play, he reminds us -- unflinchingly and in a hilarious way-- how we just can't seem to win when it comes to that four letter word staring with an "R." 
It's one of those topics severely sensitive to even the slightest innuendo or subtlety in language...and to the color of the skin of the person to whom you're addressing.
In the world of Coble's play, even in a liberal, open-minded, diverse elementary school, a teacher's well-intentioned, if misguided, attempt at celebrating black history month can cause uncontrolled chaos.
Poor Laurie Kaminski: All the young, bright-eyed, enthusiastic but naive teacher wanted to do was teach her children about black history by having them relive it... well, a part of it that's not exactly appropriate for such young children to re-enact.
As Cobble depicts Kaminski, she obviously means no harm and her heart's in the right place. Still, the aftermath includes
tempers flaring and the administration scrambling in damage control mode to try to keep the peace.
Ironically, the response by principal Angela Wadley (an enthused but later no-nonsense, exasperated Nedra McClyde, part of a mostly fine ensemble of actors playing uptight characters) sets off even worse sparks. Those fireworks cause mayhem, petitions, fights and concerns about safety in the previously peaceful school where the motto is "Peace. Love. Respect for all."
Just how far have we "overcome?"
Coble's play, directed with good pace and tension by Cleveland Play House Artistic Director Laura Kepley, is set in February 2015.
It features short, pithy scenes, reinforcing the tension that the topic of race brings to the fore. 
It's also question-provoking: When it comes to teaching the past, what material's appropriate for what age group? What, exactly, should we celebrate during a month devoted to a particular ethnic group? At one point, a character says February is "about ignoring skin color by pointing it out." 
Do we shield children from "age inappropriate" material, even though it's out there...and they can learn about it with a click of a mouse?
And if we expose it to them at a young age, how do we do so?
The play begins on a peaceful note, as the principal quiets the students down and reminds them of the school's motto.
Enter Kaminski, the new eager teacher (Crystal Finn, convincingly conveying girlish, barely controllable verve and wide-eyed enthusiasm, but later a troubled demeanor).
It's not long before she puts into place the play's inciting incident. 
Tension builds following Kaminski's skit idea and her reference to monkeys (hey, she was just trying to relay the fact that we're all similar to the creatures, not that blacks are monkeys).
A boiling point is reached after the administration, including a proud school district superintendent (a commanding but a little too over-dramatic Brian Sills, who doubles as an uptight father) tries to save face.
For an assembly, they bring in Charles Clark, a Black Panther (an intense Bjorn DuPaty with a fighting mentality and sing-songy voice, similar to an old preacher's cadence).
"We've come.a loooooooooooooooong way," he tells the students sarcastically, noting the black and white children are sitting next to each other in the school. "How faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar we've come!"
Clark continues to rant in such an inflammatory manner, an ensuing riot's not out of the question. 
In a way, it's symbolic that one of the "exits" for the actors is underground; the school is experiencing hell.
Following the black panther fiasco, the second act begins with the open-mouthed, shocked superintendent and the principal looking down and away from him rising from below. Their expressions say more than any words could. 
And the trouble at the school where the motto is "Peace. Love. Respect for All" is far from over.
It's hardly far removed from real life when it comes to race.
As we've seen through numerous recent incidents, it's 2015, but we've yet to overcome.

Aaron Krause is a Reflector staff writer. Reach him at akrause@norwalkreflector.com.

IF YOU GO
WHAT: "Fairfield"
WHEN:  2:30 p.m. today
WHERE: Outcalt Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland
HOW MUCH: Tickets range from $29 to $69. Call 216-241-6000 or visitwww.playhousesquare.org.