August Wilson does not straddle any fences
After seeing August Wilson’s play “Fences”, I am convinced again that everyone is prejudiced in some way and, conversely, there is always someone who is prejudiced against you. One of the hardest lessons in life is to learn how to get out from under your own prejudices and those of others in your family or community, or else learn to live with it if there’s nothing else you can do.
Everyone wants the same basic things: someone to love, a safe place to live, enough food, a dream to aspire to, a good enough education to get a good steady job, good health, and a better life for their children. When it doesn’t happen for you, or for your children, you can become bitter. “Fences” is all about the disappointment of a systemic wrong done to a man and how bitterness over the incident, or series of incidences, builds a psychological fence around him and how he is trapped by his bitterness to deny his son’s dream of possibilities beyond the neighborhood.
This is what happens to Troy Maxson (James A. Williams). As a young man, he was a great baseball player and hitter, but the only outlet for his ability was the segregated Negro League. Troy did well there, but he couldn’t get into major league ball because he was black; it didn’t matter that he had a better batting average than most of the current white players, he was black and therefore it didn’t matter.
Troy ’s upbringing had been hard. His mother left him and his 10 siblings when he was very young, saying she’d be back, but she never came back. This abandonment, coupled with his father’s relentless demand that the siblings constantly work hard to harvest the cotton needed for the sharecropper’s contract with the land owner, gave Troy only bad memories of his youth.
Thrown out at age 14 by his father when Troy was caught experimenting with sex, he was on his own with only the clothes on his back. With no money and no future, he had no hope unless he could wrestle it from the world.
He moved on, and he and some friends engaged in robbery and violence to get some easy money. During the resulting in jail term, he made a good friend in Jim Bono (William Hall, Jr.). When they were released, they landed jobs with the Pittsburgh ’s garbage utility as can dumpers.
When Troy met Rose (Kim Staunton), the love of his life, he vowed to keep to the straight and narrow to have a life with her. Rose and Troy had a son Cory (Stephen Tyrone Williams) who is now 17.
Gabe (Craig Alan Edwards) is the only sibling that Troy has kept in touch with. Gabe was damaged during WWII and now dwelling in a world that is waiting for the call to the pearly gates. Gabe carries a trumpet with him everywhere, ready to make the call to redemption. He’s been living with his brother’s family in their little house in the Pittsburgh Hill District, a virtual ghetto, but recently moved to rent a room in another house, “to get a place of his own.” Gabe lives on a very modest Army pension and needs his family to keep track of him and help him.
When the play opens, Troy and Bono are coming home on a Friday evening, the weekly payday, and are celebrating by sharing of a bottle of gin. They make a point of being in control of their drinking, laughing and telling stories as they wander into the Maxson’s yard. Bono is questioning Troy about him asking the union leadership why all the garbage truck drivers are white and all the dumpers are black. Bono worries about Troy getting fired for confronting the established order; however, Troy is convinced that he can’t get fired for just asking a question.
Rose comes out to see what all the ruckus is about, and spends some happy time with Troy teasing and hugging her, laughing about what he wants to do later. They are apparently in love and content with their lives.
Bono keeps saying he has to get home to Lucille or she’ll be mad. Troy and Bono make a deal: when, and if, Troy finishes the fence around the yard that Rose wants, Bono will buy Lucille the refrigerator she wants. While they are out there talking and laughing, Troy ’s other son Lyons (Jose A. Rufino) strolls in. He’s a pickup sideman for any jazz group that needs him and he’s there to borrow $10 from his dad. “I’ll pay you back as soon as Bonnie gets paid.” His father grudgingly gives him the ten and taunts Lyons that he just comes around on payday, looking for a handout. Lyons should get a good, steady job, not drift around hoping to find another gig for the weekend.
The Maxson’s son Cory wants to play high school football with the possibility of a professional career after college. In fact a college recruiter is coming to see his dad to get permission to recruit Cory. This play is set in 1957-58 with a follow up in 1963, so the color barriers were beginning to break down, but Troy is stuck in the past and his bitterness and doesn’t want his son to be refused a chance because he is black.
Consequently, Troy refuses to sign the recruitment permission letter and Cory’s dream is broken. This brings about a confrontation between father and son, not unlike Troy ’s confrontation with his father. The outcome is the same, Cory is told to get out and make his own way, without help from his embittered father. The pattern of bitter hopelessness repeats itself, again.
Meanwhile, Bono has been questioning Troy about Alberta , a woman at the bar where they occasionally stop, and Troy’s escalating involvement with her. Alberta gets pregnant but dies giving birth to their daughter Raynell. Troy comes home with the new baby and tells Rose that this child is innocent and he is responsible for her. Rose, despite her deep hurt at the betrayal, agrees that the child is innocent and takes her in, but, she implacably tells Troy , “You are now a womanless man.”
Director Timothy Bond has directed four other Wilson productions, one of them twice, so he is half way into directing all the Pittsburgh or Century Cycle, Wilson’s 10 plays set during a different decade in the 20th century, almost all set in Pittsburgh. He does a wonderful job with great actors in this production. It is so gritty that you can almost feel the dust of the grassless yard and the bitterness that Troy feels.
The set, by William Bloodgood, is the Maxton’s yard, entered from the back of the set, with the house’s front porch and on the left, and, on the right, a tree with a ball tied to it that Troy uses to practice his powerful swing. Everything in the set had a purpose and told a story.
The costume designer is Constanza Romero, August Wilson’s widow. Romero has designed for several of Wilson ’s plays, both in Seattle and on Broadway, and for many productions in the region and around the US as well. The costumes were excellent. They didn’t demand the attention that would divide you from the action, but fit seamlessly into the story.
“Fences” runs at the Seattle Repertory Theatre through April 18. Tickets are available now through the Seattle Rep Box Office at (206) 443-2222 as well as online at www.seattlerep.org.
The next Seattle Rep production is “An Iliad” in the Leo K. Theatre runs from April 9 to May 16. According to SRT website, “An Iliad” is “A new take on one of history's most famous and exciting tales. An Iliad pulls from Homer's sweeping fable of gods, heroes and the Trojan War, and weaves his timeless legends with modern stories of war and revenge. Created by acclaimed Broadway actor Denis O'Hare and director Lisa Peterson and starring Seattle actor Hans Altwies (The Seafarer, The Three Musketeers), this captivating theatrical experience takes audiences on an unforgettable trip celebrating the art of storytelling.” I'm looking forward to it.