note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
Summer is waning, but raw, dramatic energy and power-packed theater is cresting at Gloucester Stage Company’s magnificent production of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play,”Fences”.
After watching a brilliant opening day performance, Gloucester Stage Artistic Director-Director Eric Engel was trembling with emotion, rendered almost speechless by his brilliant cast’s sterling performance. Engel & Co. strived to invoke realism and create increased clarity of characters, plot and theme in “Fences,” and they achieved it, with startling effects, in intimate Gorton Theatre.
Starting with J. Michael Griggs‘ realistic shabby set of a house and yard in Pittsburgh’s rundown Hills District in 1957, punctuated with jazzy mood music between scenes, this production is awesome, from opening to finale.
With every scene in both acts, the audience erupted with appreciative applause, a rare, spontaneous response, which also occurred in September 2009. Award-winning director Kenny Leon helmed Huntington Theatre Company’s production, which was equally explosive.
Leon had the distinct advantage of meeting and working with August Wilson, whose literary works reflected the pulse of the African-American experience in the 20th century. In the 1980s, Wilson created a precedent-breaking 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, highlighting each decade with facets of African-American history, struggles and aspirations. Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for his sixth chapter, “Fences,” written in 1985, and set in Pittsburgh in 1957. His third Pittsburgh Cycle play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” highlighting the 1920s, continues to be another theatrical favorite. Wilson (nee’ Frederick August Kittel Jr.) died in 2005, but his legacy is stronger than ever.
All but one of the series of plays are set in Wilson’s hometown, Pittsburgh, in the Hills District, where he was born, son of white, Sudeten-German father, Frederick August Kittel Jr., and African-American cleaning woman, Daisy Wilson, originally from North Carolina. Throughout his youth, later moving to predominantly white neighborhoods with his mother, stepfather and five siblings, Wilson and his family were victimized by racism, so his experiences, both good and bad, are reflected in his works.
In “Fences,” there’s a dichotomy. Pittsburgh municipal garbage collector, Troy Maxson, has strong resentment and distrust of white folks; yet his high school son, Cory, (intensely portrayed by Jared Michael Brown) is on the brink of establishing himself as a competitive football player and being recruited for entry and playing at the University of North Carolina. Troy’s loving, faithful, and tolerant wife, Rose, stands strongly with Cory, telling Troy times have changed for “colored ball players,” and Cory has a shot at being somebody.
But Troy is building a fence around his modest home, to protect his family and to keep Death (and the Devil) away from his door. He declares his job is to protect his home and family, and that’s what he intends to do, at all cost.
Troy refuses to admit his own situation is changing at work, making his own future brighter. He complained to his boss that only white men get to be drivers, while black workers must lift and tote people’s garbage. When Troy is advised to go to his union and present his case, he is surprised that he’s listened to. He becomes the first black man to become a driver (even though he doesn’t have a license).
Troy’s bitterness about being a former star in the All-Negro Baseball League, knowing he could have been an outstanding force in baseball, but realizing white folks would hold him back and bench him, gnaws at him. He’s even angrier when Rose reminds him he was too old for a career in the Major Baseball League, having been incarcerated for robbery for 15 years. His baseball career started late, in prison, when he was in his 40s.
Stage- film-TV actor Daver Morrison is electrifying as Troy, a flawed 53-year-old man, who’s strong, virile, sensuous and can’t escape his ghosts of the past, his visions of death, and strong sense of failure. But he’s also affable with Rose, (inimitable, versatile Jacqui Parker) and especially his friend-co-worker, Bono (Gregory Marlow). Morrison makes every scene, from tender to terrible, engaging to enraged, penetrating to pugilistic, pulsate with raw emotion.
He tells stories, sings simple songs. He’s likable, loving, fun-loving, but also a closet womanizer. Troy has another son, Lyons, 34, conceived from an earlier dalliance. Lyons is likable, carefree, a struggling musician who doesn’t like to work and wants to make his future performing music, which Troy resents. As Lyons, Warren Jackson is great, infusing lightness and levity here.
Insisting he’s protecting Cory from future disappointment and harm, Troy deliberately destroys Cory’s chance at success. but that’s only part of this nail-biting story. There’s Troy’s veteran brother, Gabriel, who “got half his head blown off” serving in the war, and hasn’t been right ever since. Gabriel tries to live independently in Miss Pearl’s boarding house, but he’s constantly threatened with being committed to a hospital. Jermel Nakia’s portrayal of Gabriel is so smashing and realistic, he draws gasps and tears from theatergoers.
And Gloucester’s own Bezawit Strong, a second-grader bubbling over with enough charm and poise to melt the hardest hearts, does precisely that as Raynell, Troy’s late-in-life, illegitimate little daughter. The closing exchange between Raynell and Cory, who has returned from military duty for Troy’s funeral, is moving, and just plain marvelous.
BOX INFO: August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning two-act drama play, starring Boston’s multi-award winning Jacqui Parker and Brooklyn-based Warren Jackson, appearing at Gloucester Stage Company through Sept. 7 at the Gorton Theatre, 267 East Main St., Gloucester. Performances: Sept. 3-6, at 8 p.m.; Sept. 6, at 3 p.m.; Sept. 7, at 4 p.m. Tickets:$40; seniors, students, $35. Call the Box Office at 978-281-4433 or visit online at www.gloucesterstage.com