August Wilson’s Portrait of a Man at War with Himself
by Barry Willis
Meet Troy Maxson, Pittsburgh garbage collector, former baseball talent, father of two sons, and a man grappling mightily with his own fierce demons. Now on the Monroe Stage at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa, “Fences” is one of the finest works of American playwright August Wilson, who devoted his most productive years to chronicling the heroic struggles of ordinary people.
Director Jourdan Olivier-Verde tackles this formidable classic of American theater with verve. Launched on Broadway in 1987, with James Earl Jones in the starring role, “Fences” ran for 525 performances, winning a New York Drama Critics Circle award, a Tony award, and a Pulitzer Prize.
Set in the 1950s, the play centers on 53-year-old Troy (powerful Keene Hudson), a superb baseball player in his younger days – “I once hit seven home runs off Satchel Paige.” But Troy is embittered that his athletic peak passed before Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier, and by the recognition that his life has become an endless cycle of numbing exhaustion.
Troy, an effusive, introspective working man, is devoted to providing a home for his wife Rose (Val Sinckler) and their son Cory (Mark Anthony), while scarcely understanding that the world of apartheid he knew in his youth has slowly begun to soften. He waxes nostalgic for his glory days in baseball while belittling the talents of Robinson and many other black athletes who followed him into the majors.
So resentful is he of the success he’s been denied that he refuses to encourage success in his sons. His older son Lyons (De’Sean Moore) is a jive-talking jazz musician who often comes round on payday to ask his dad for a loan. The two have an affably contentious relationship, and although Troy seems to appreciate Lyons’ abilities, he never bothers to go hear him perform.
His strained relationship with the younger Cory is much more problematic. Troy doesn’t bother to go to Cory’s football games – he barely acknowledges that the boy has talent – and refuses to let him accept an athletic scholarship to an out-of-state school. Resentful about his own stunted athletic career, he’s blind to the value of a college education and refuses to believe that athletics or music could lead to a better life. Instead, he admonishes his sons to work as relentlessly as he has. Even if the drudgery feels pointless, he’s proud of having achieved something tangible, meaning the modest home he shares with Rose and Cory.
Troy is haunted by his sense of duty, a theme woven skillfully through the script. An affair he’s having with a woman named Alberta (whom we never meet) overpowers him with remorse, as does the way he’s mismanaged care for his brother Gabe (Jim Frankie Banks), a WWII combat veteran made a harmless but visionary simpleton by a severe head injury. Banks is consistently convincing in his portrayal. Troy achieves a small victory for both himself and for racial equality by winning a promotion to truck driver—despite his lack of a driver’s license. But the new job separates him from his coworker and lifelong friend Jim Bono, in an amiable performance by Nicholas James Augusta.
Val Sinckler is astounding—a theatrical force of nature—as Rose, Troy’s loyal, long-suffering wife, who though crushed by his philandering has the generosity to accept as her own the baby that results. Mark Anthony brings a huge dollop of sensitivity to the role of Cory, whose alienation from his father mirrors Troy’s own alienation from his. The resolution of this subplot lends a hopeful note that families may be as capable of healing as are the larger societies that contain them.
The entire dramatic arc of “Fences” takes place on the porch and in the front yard of the Maxon home, a shabby but substantial edifice by set designer Aissa Simbulan.
There are no weak links in the cast. Performances range from good to spectacular. The exemplary ensemble will certainly be in the groove throughout the show’s run.
Wilson’s oeuvre was the social/political reality of the 1950s and ‘60s, the background on which “Fences” is drawn. The play is an intensely personal tale of one man’s efforts to make sense of his place in the universe. It’s also an abiding reminder of the importance of family, friends, honesty, and commitment.
“Fences” by August Wilson, directed by Jourdan Olivier-Verde, set designed by Aissa Simbulan, at 6th Street Playhouse, Monroe Stage, Santa Rosa, California. Info: 6thStreetPlayhouse.com – to January 28, 2024.
Cast: Keene Hudson, Mark Anthony, De’Sean Moore, Jim Frankie Banks, Nicholas Augusta, Val Sinckler, Eden Kuteesa Oland, and Nadia Hill.
Banner photo: Mark Anthony, Val Sinckler, & Keene Hudson. Photos: Eric Chazankin.
Guest contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: email@example.com