FENCES: “Some people build fences to keep people out…and other people build fences to keep people in.”
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage
Performances: February 7 – March 1, 2020 (Previews February 5 & 6)
Ticket Prices: $36-54
Info: (804) 282-2620 or www.virginiarep.org
One of the better known plays of African-American playwright August Wilson, and one in his Pittsburgh Series of ten plays, each set in a different decade, Fences (1985) is set in the 1950s and explores family, racism, identity, generational curses, honor, salvation, and ultimately love through the eyes of the Maxson family. There is so much rich material packed into this one play it is no wonder it runs nearly three hours but playwright Wilson and director Tawnya Pettiford-Wates (Dr. T) seem to share a vision and are committed to letting the story unfold in its own time. Dr. T. appears to confirm this in her director’s note, where she writes:
August Wilson is a poet/storyteller and the script for Fences is like jazz, blues
And gospel music in spoken language. Fences captures in the text and in a
Variety of voices the polyphonic multisyllabic rhythms of Black culture almost
As if it were a musical score played by a classic jazz quartet.
Troy Maxson, the family patriarch, was once a stellar Negro Leagues baseball player but the play finds him supporting his family as a trash collector and agitating the segregated sanitation department that allows only white workers to drive, leaving the dirtier work and heavy lifting to the Negro workers. James Craven wears the mantle of Troy Mason with authority. He brings a fierce but broken power to the role that is carefully nuanced. We see the passion and defeat, the sense of responsibility and loss that drives this man. Like people we know, he is flawed, but still worthy of respect; we begin to understand him but cannot bring ourselves to like him.
For some, it may be impossible to understand the kind of love his wife, Rose, holds – a love that holds on even at the cost of giving up her own hopes and dreams? ***SPOILER ALERT*** Could you, would you be able to humble yourself yet at the same time empower yourself to be able to not only raise but also to genuinely love the child of your husband’s deceased lover? Lisa Strum steps into Roses shoes with a quiet dignity that many of us can only strive for, but most will never achieve. When she finally lashes out, I found myself exhaling a breath I was not aware I had been holding.
Both Craven and Strum are making their VaRep debuts in Fences. Both were well-chosen for their roles.
The cast also includes the versatile Jamar Jones as Cory, the teen-aged son of Rose and Troy. Cory’s dreams of becoming a football player are dashed by his father, still bitter at not being able to move from the Negro Leagues to Major League Baseball. Rose tries to intercede in the rift this causes in the father-son relationship, but it takes years, during which Cory leaves home only to return for his father’s funeral, before healing can begin.
Joe Marshall plays Lyons, Troy’s eldest son from a previous marriage or relationship. When we first meet Lyons, he is trying to borrow money from his father, who belittles him for trying to make a living as a musician instead of taking on a steady job. As the plot unfolds, we begin to see other sides of Lyons. In addition to providing some comic relief to the thick tension, he also acts as a buffer between the family members who share Troy’s household. Home ownership is a source of pride for Troy, who doesn’t have much else to be proud of, aside from his wife and children.
Troy’s best friend and coworker Bono, played by J. Ron Fleming, Jr., has known Troy longer than anyone else in his life at this point, and tries, futilely, to keep him on track. Bono is a supporting role that provides key information to the advancement of the story – and to the audience’s understanding of Troy’s motives. Bono is as much family as anyone related by blood.
My favorite supporting character is, hands down, Gabriel. Troy’s brother returned from military service having sustained a head injury that left him with a metal plate in his head and the belief – or ability – to talk to St. Peter and communicate with the unseen. He gets arrested for disturbing the peace, but he says he was chasing the hellhounds that seem to plague him. There are some possibly shady dealings concerning how Troy has handled Gabriel’s modest settlement from the government, which makes us love Gabriel even more, while casting even more shade on Troy. But the final moments of the play belong to Gabriel, who arrives for his brother’s funeral with his battered trumpet and tries desperately to blow a note, perhaps a reveille, so St. Peter will open the gates. But he can barely force a tiny bleat from the battle weary instrument and raises his hand in the air and begins to sing in a warm voice that forced an unwilling tear from my eye.
Finally, a word of encouragement for little Milani Hopkins who plays Raynell, the little sister of Cory and Lyons. Hopkins shares a sweet duet, dancing and singing with her big brother Cory who left soon after she was born. Their connection is immediate and authentic, and Little Miss Hopkins even gets a brief solo.
I don’t usually notice sound design, but Nicholas Seaver has created a beautifully organic sound design that includes a train and barking dogs that possibly embody the imaginary hellhounds that Gabriel hears in his head. Nia Safarr Banks’ costumes are period appropriate and in line with the financial status of the family. But Josafath Reynoso’s set deserves special recognition. The play takes place in the backyard and alley of the Maxson home, and Reynoso has designed the rear of the Maxson’s modest brick home – a home that has seen better days. There is a porch that is shallow and sadly lacking in railings, a clothesline, a row of trash cans, and the fence of the title. The fence is only partially built at the beginning of the play, but it is complete by the end – another physical embodiment of one of the plays allegorical themes. And then there is the tree – a real, full-sized tree, perhaps 15-20 feet high, standing downstage right (the audience’s left). Andrew Bonniwell’s lighting creates changes of day and season, with one powerful effect when Troy stands frozen under that huge tree, baseball bat raised, and again at the end when rays of light seem to break through unseen clouds and shine rays of sunshine and spiritual enlightenment on the family gathered to pay homage to Troy.
Fences is a story told by a master storyteller (and that word “storyteller” includes the playwright, the director, and the cast). It skillfully guides the audience through a plethora of emotions, but I never felt manipulated, and it shines a revelatory light onto the lives of black families in a particular time and place in America. One couldn’t ask for anything more. Of course, Fences is a part of the Acts of Faith theatre festival.
Here’s a link to the Fences Study Guide: https://va-rep.org/show_fences_study_guide.pdf
And here’s a link to a short video preview with the director, Dr. T.: https://youtu.be/EM3bFoLaynY
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Photos not available at the time this review was written. Photos will be added as they are made available.
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