August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Fences
by Jeffrey Rossman
October 30, 2010, Chapel Hill, NC: Like another very prominent African American, Frederick August Kittel was born to mixed race parents: his father a white German immigrant and his mother, Daisy Wilson, the rock of his childhood whose name and lineage he adopted. In 1987 August Wilson introduced his play Fences to the theatrical world, and since that time it has won the Pulitzer Prize andthe Tony Award for best drama and has recently been revived on Broadway with Denzel Washington in the lead. Despite his prolific and consistently high caliber output, Fences is the first August Wilson play produced by PlayMakers Repertory Company, and they have assembled an elite and renowned cast that rivals that of any other, including Denzel and his band of superstars.
Like any great work of art, Fences can have alternate points of view, contains universal themes, and leaves you with as many questions as resolutions. For those not familiar with this play, Fences, set sometime in 1950s America,is a seven-character drama – all African Americans – and there are most definitely themes in the play that apply only to that background, but the family conflicts plus themes of redemption and responsibility can and do resonate with anyone. At the core of this story is Troy Maxson, a fifty-three year old man who works on a garbage truck and lives with his wife Rose and 17 year-old son Cory. His immediate goal is to become a driver of the truck but the company tells him that a black man cannot hold that position. Troy, a passionate and voluble man, remains filled with rage at the injustice that he was not allowed to play in then-segregated major league baseball and his belief, arguably correct, that a majority of the ball players in the Negro Leagues were superior to those in the all-white National and American Leagues. Troy is played by Charlie Robinson, a veteran of stage, screen, and TV with a resume way too long even to begin to list. This is a role where he is almost always on stage and barely gets two minutes to rest between lines. He not only perfectly played the role of Troy but also captured the essence of regret, confusion, lost opportunities, and self-delusion: he was so powerful at times that the audience gasped and even recoiled in horror at some of his treatment, especially towards his son.
Thomasi McDonald, in his Playmakers debut, plays the role of Bono: friend, former prison mate and drinking buddy of Troy. His easygoing and loose-limbed swagger belies his insight into Troy’s behavior as he presciently, but unsuccessfully, warns Troy about his marital infidelity and the danger of losing his wife because of it. Erik LaRay Harvey, also making his Playmakers debut, read the role of Lyons, Troy’s 34 year-old son from his first marriage. Lyons is a somewhat deadbeat aspiring musician (no, those last three words do not automatically go together!) who only seems to show up on payday to borrow money.
The role of Gabriel, Troy’s brother who is mentally scarred from World War II, is a complex and difficult one. Ray Anthony Thomas, whose voice you will immediately recognize, was quite magnificent as a character that must be part comic relief to the nearly unrelenting tension as well as the one who may actually see things more clearly than all the others. Kathryn Hunter-Williams, a frequent contributor to Playmakers’ productions, plays the role of Troy’s wife Rose. Her portrayal felt a bit too even and calculated, although she rose to the occasion in the big scene when Troy confesses his infidelity. It is Troy’s relationship with his young son Cory, played with great intensity, bravado, immaturity, indecisiveness, and assuredness (i.e., all the conflicting characteristics of most seventeen year-olds) by Yaegel Welch. His battles with his father are epic and frightening and set the stage for the theatrical coda.
Scenic designer Jan Chambers created an authentic home and yard along with the fence that is slowly being erected throughout the play. The design remained the same throughout this two and one-half hour production, but you could watch this play and be drawn in even if they were acting in front of a blank wall.
The quote that accompanies not only much of the advertising but also the cover of the program is: “I’m gonna build me a fence around what belongs to me.” The barriers and walls that people put up to impede understanding, reconciliation, and some semblance of compromise are as old as time and will no doubt continue to poison. While this is somewhat of a cliché, you have not seen it expressed so forcefully as in Playmakers’ triumphant production of Fences, a great American classic.
This production runs through November 14. For details, see our calendar.