Cal Shakes’ revival of the great 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Fences” by the illustrious August Wilson (1945-2005) is still vigorous and vital. With the passage of time, and under the direction of Raelle Myrick-Hodges, the two-act play becomes even more fascinating and thought-provoking for its black historical context.
The action of the play begins in the pre-civil rights era in 1957 and ends in 1965, just before the Vietnam War war build-up. But protagonist Troy Maxson (excellent Aldo Billingslea, “Spunk,” “Winter’s Tale”), a black middle-aged trash collector living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was brought up in the South in the early 1900s by a tyrannical, violent and unsuccessful sharecropper. Troy left home at 14 and spent 15 years in prison for thievery. After he was released, he became a baseball player in the Negro Leagues. But Troy remains bitter that he missed the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues, although he was too old to join them when they belatedly began to accept black players.
Thus, although in 1957 new opportunities are opening up for blacks in Pittsburgh, Troy Maxson carries with him the effects and attitudes of the old South, with its hideous slavery and hateful bigotry. In fact, it is said that August Wilson chose the name “Maxson” as an amalgam of the Mason-Dixon Line, the imaginary line that separated the “Slave States” from the “Free States.”
Troy’s abusive childhood, anger and dissatisfaction with his life prevent him from appreciating and being faithful to his kind and devoted wife, Rose (marvelous Margo Hall, “Twelfth Night,” “Raisin in the Sun”) and loving his high school-age son Cory (J. Alfonse Nicholson), who is being recruited to play college football, and his 30-something year-old son by a previous relationship, jazz musician Lyons (Lance Gardner). Troy’s life experiences make him suspicious of the opportunities his sons hope to find.
Yet, at the start of “Fences,” Troy talks with his old friend and co-worker, Bono (Guiesseppe Jones) about Troy’s complaint to his boss that no Black employees drive the garbage trucks, but only lift the garbage. Ultimately, Troy wins the right to drive the truck, but, in an allusion to having separated himself from his black roots, is lonely without his friends, who like Bono, still do the heavy lifting at the back of the truck.
In the bit-too-long first act, all the stage action is centered upon Troy, and it is a powerful vehicle for actor Aldo Billingslea (James Earl Jones played Troy in the original Broadway production). Margo Hall, in the part of Rose, Troy’s devoted wife, reaches her excellent stature in Act II. Her soft-spoken voice and calm demeanor are counterbalanced by the energy, teasing nature and inner fortitude Margo Hall brings to the role.
In a somewhat misguided effort to honor the strength of black women, the audience was played snippets of local women sharing their own experiences in response to Rose’s life. I fear that the audience did not understood the context of their remarks, because at first I didn’t get it. In the bucolic serenity of Cal Shakes’ Bruns Amphitheater, it was a touch difficult to experience fully the bare yard of the Maxson’s dilapidated “ancient two-story brick house,” although Michael Locher’s set and the music designed by Mikaal Sulaiman helped create the mood.
I recently was talking with my British cousins about the best United States playwrights. Names such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill and David Mamet were mentioned. Some, like Lin-Manuel Miranda, are too new to have yet stood the test of time. But August Wilson should definitely be on the short list. “Fences,” one of his ten Pittsburgh Cycle plays, each is set in a different decade, has importance, complexity, eloquence and strength.
© Emily S. Mendel 2016 All Rights Reserved