by Barbara Waldinger
August Wilson’s towering play Fences, a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning drama, is a challenging work for any theatre to produce. Expectations are high among critics and audiences alike as to how the production will bring to life the story of Troy Maxson, a garbage collector in the Hill District of Pittsburgh (1957) who represents the Black experience in America (originally performed on Broadway in 1987 with James Earl Jones in the lead). How can one play during a hectic summer theatre season—in this case Shakespeare & Company’s—confront the complexities of Maxson’s connections to his family, his culture, and his world? In a controversial keynote address at a 1996 theatre conference at Princeton University, the playwright, seeking funding for the work of Black theatre artists, explained: “Growing up in my mother’s house. . . in Pittsburgh, Pa., I learned the language, the eating habits, the religious beliefs, the gestures, the notions of common sense, attitudes towards sex, concepts of beauty and justice, and the responses to pleasure and pain…that my mother had learned from her mother, and which you could trace back to the first African who set foot on the continent. It is this culture that stands today on these shores as a testament to the resiliency of the African American spirit.” But Wilson also points out our commonality: “Theatre asserts that all of human life is universal. Love, Honor, Duty, Betrayal belong and pertain to every culture and every race” though “the way they are acted out on the playing field may be different.” Director Christopher V. Edwards and his cast and crew courageously lead us onto this playing field and though the production is not perfect, we will be better for having seen it.
Setting the scene of his play, Wilson contrasts black vs white lives in America’s cities at the turn of the century: while European immigrants found or created jobs and eventually prospered, the “descendants of African slaves” who arrived in cities during the Great Migration were rejected, settling “along the riverbanks and under bridges in shallow, ramshackle houses made of sticks and tar-paper,” collecting rags and wood and selling ‘the use of their muscles and their bodies.” Troy (“ranney”) has led a tough life: he was born into a family of eleven children, the son of a sharecropper. At the age of fourteen, after a terrible beating from his father (“the devil himself”) Troy left home for Mobile, where he turned to robbery to support his first wife and son, spending fifteen years in prison for murder. When he got out, his wife and son had moved on. But it was in jail where he met Bono (Kenneth Ransom) his closest friend, and where he developed a love of baseball. It was racism that prevented Troy from playing with the white teams, despite his tremendous home-run record in the Negro League, and it’s racism that currently prevents him from being a driver for the sanitation company where blacks haul the garbage while whites drive the truck. As Fences begins, Troy reveals to Bono that he complained to the union, overriding his fear of being fired. The two men enjoy drinking together on Troy’s porch and in the yard of Troy’s home every Friday (payday), where much of the action of the play takes place, and where Troy lives with Rose (Ella Joyce), his wife of eighteen years, and his son Cory (JaQuan Malik Jones). Set designer John Savage creates Troy’s colorful house in Pittsburgh, with its bright orange porch railing and posts and neon green steps leading to a crowded yard, containing the wooden sawhorses and lumber needed for Troy to build a fence, and a long rope with a ball made of rags for batting practice—both essential metaphors in this play.
Wilson has many skills as a playwright, among them his gorgeous poetic language and his reverence for the blues. Originating in the Deep South this music is the African American response to the world–in Fences, Old Dog Blue, an old folk song Troy attributes to his father, becomes a leitmotif. In terms of structure, Wilson’s knowledge of the craft of playwriting sets up how Troy’s difficult past influences his present relationship with every character in his orbit. Troy is a hard man, determined to live life on his own terms, never surrendering without a fight. He is not afraid of dying (“Death ain’t nothing but a fastball on the outside corner. And you know what I’ll do to that!”), daring to wrestle Death at every turn (a Biblical reference to Jacob). The fence will keep Death out and preserve his family safe inside. “Ranney” is absolutely lovable early in the play, a wonderful storyteller, flirting with his wife in an overtly sexual way, sharing humorous moments with his friend Bono. But as Fences goes on and we begin to judge Troy’s uncompromising interactions with his family, the actor too often raises his voice, when it is his physicality that conveys a stronger message—the way he strikes out at some unknown and unseen enemy.
Ella Joyce’s Rose, a good and loving woman who holds the family together and tries to mediate their disputes, is sometimes difficult to hear, except in her most powerful scene when Troy tells her he has been having an affair with a young woman and will not break off with her. In keeping with our MeToo movement, she easily demolishes his excuses about being a responsible husband who feels as though he’s been standing “on first base for eighteen years.” Her reply, a compelling monologue that begins with: “I been standing with you! . . . Don’t you think I ever wanted other things? Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes?” ignited the audience.
Gabriel (Brian D. Coats) is Troy’s brother, brain-damaged from the war. We learn that the only reason Troy was able to afford this house was by taking Gabriel’s disability settlement and inviting him to live with them. When Gabriel finds another apartment, he is concerned that Troy is angry at him for leaving (his money will go to his landlord, rather than Troy) and when Gabriel can’t make it on his own, Troy signs a form that commits Gabriel to an institution. Coats’ interpretation of this character is heart-rending. Loving, naïve, and gentle, Gabriel sees himself as the Archangel whose job it is to open the pearly gates of Heaven and chase out the hell hounds. When he finally gets to do that, the old trumpet he carries around doesn’t work, and Coats’ dance and vocalizations, inspired by the music of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, are astounding.
Lyons (L. James), Troy’s oldest son, is a musician who can’t seem to make a living. James plays him as a slick dresser (costumes by Nia Safarr Banks), with a distinctive walk and a smile, who knows that whenever he appears on Troy’s payday to borrow money, first he’ll get a lecture from his father about his lifestyle and his irresponsibility. When he sees his uncle Gabriel, note his physical reaction to Gabriel’s nickname for him: “Lyons! King of the Jungle!” James has this character down so completely that every time he shows up, the audience laughs, knowing he’ll either be looking for money or food. Yet, when Troy refuses to come to the Grill to listen to his music, Lyons’ smile droops ever so slightly.
The cruelty of Troy is most marked in relationship to his younger son Cory. Unfortunately Troy’s treatment at the hands of his own father informs his reactions to his son, as in Troy’s monologue stating that a father’s responsibility is to take care of members of his family but doesn’t include liking them. Jones’ Cory is stricken when he hears this but devastated when he learns that Troy refuses to allow colleges to recruit him for their football team. Troy, reliving his own past, assumes the colleges will not let him play because of his race. When Cory returns years later to his home as a Corporal in the Marines, Jones has become subdued and bitter—he has lost his spirit.
Finally, Ransom establishes just the right tone for Bono, who loves Troy and Rose, and wants them to stay together, as he does with his wife Lucille. Though it can be difficult to distinguish his words at times, Ransom’s physicality is priceless. He’s funny, loyal, caring, and everything we could hope for in a dear friend.
The lighting and musical selections between scenes are well chosen, but director Edwards should have tightened the pacing by eliminating the long pauses during these transitions. It is more important for the play to move forward than to be concerned with stagehands making changes to the set in the darkness. Except for that timing, the direction, especially in the ensemble scenes, is highly effective.
Fences is such a rich and complex play that it would reward multiple viewings. The Shakespeare & Company production is a worthy contributor to Wilson’s legacy.
FENCES runs from July 22—August 27, 2023, at the Tina Packer Playhouse, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA. For tickets call 413-637-3353 or online at shakespeare.org. Shakespeare & Company presents FENCES by August Wilson. Director: Christopher V. Edwards. Cast: Brian D. Coats (Gabriel), L. James (Lyons), JaQuan Malik Jones (Cory), Ella Joyce (Rose), Ashley McCauley Moore (Raynell), “ranney” (Troy Maxson), Kenneth Ransom (Jim Bono). Set designer: Jon Savage; Light Designer: Aja M. Jackson; Costume Designer: Nia Safarr Banks; Sound Designer: Caroline Eng; Fight Captain: L. James. Stage Manager: Maegan A. Conroy.