Some People Build Fences to Keep People Out and Other People Build Fences to Keep People In

Last night we went to see the August Wilson play “Fences” at the Pasadena Playhouse. Wow! Theatre at its best.

How to describe the play? My wife suggested “The story of a flawed man, in 9 scenes.” That is an apt description. Fences is part of Augst Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle“, a series of 10 plays (nine set in Pittsburgh) that chronicle the African-American Experience in the 20th Century. The 6th play in the cycle, and one of the most popular to perform, is Fences, set in the 1950s (1957, to be exact). Fences won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play, among other honors.

Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson, a garbage collector and former Negro League player; his best friend Jim Bono, whom he met in jail; his wife of 17 years, Rose; his brother, Gabriel, who was left addled after a wartime head injury; his oldest son Lyons, from before he went to Jail, and his yougest son, Cory, who he had with Rose. The play starts with Tory and Jim discussing why it is that Negros can work the back of the truck and collect garbage, but not drive. The play begins on payday, with Troy and Bono drinking and talking. Troy’s character is revealed through his speech about how he (Troy) went up to Mr. Rand (their boss) and asked why black men aren’ allowed to drive the garbage trucks (they are garbage men). Rose and Lyons join in the conversation. Lyons, a musician, has come to ask for money, confident he will receive it. A few days later, Cory tells Troy that a man from North Carolina will come to talk about Cory’s future in football, and that he will be offered a scholarship. Troy was also a sports star when younger: a baseball player in the Negro Leagues, disheartened that the major leagues began to accept black players only when Troy was too old to play. Troy allows Cory to play football only on the condition that Cory keep his after-school job at the A&P supermarket. Cory, although knowing that this is impossible, accepts Troy’s offer. By the next scene, we learn that Troy has won his case and is the first black man to drive a garbage truck in Pittsburgh. As he is boasting to Bono about his past struggles with his father, Cory comes in enraged, because Troy has told the football coach that Cory cannot play football anymore because he didn’t keep his job at the A&P. Troy views Cory’s insubordination as “strike one.” Two more strikes, and Troy will kick him out. In the next scene, Troy bails Gabriel out of jail after Gabriel was arrested for disturbing the peace. Bono warns Troy about not “messing” with Alberta and sticking with Rose. Troy says he realizes Rose’s value, but then admits to her that he is having an affair with Alberta, and she is pregnant. Rose is distraught that she put all her faith in Troy and yet he betrayed her. When Troy grabs her arm, Cory comes from behind him and shoves Troy down. Troy admonishes Cory that this act is “strike two” and tells him not to strike out. For the next few months, all Troy does is come home, change, and go to Alberta’s house. No one in the family talks to him. Six months later, Rose receives a call from the hospital. Troy’s baby is a girl, and Alberta has died in childbirth. When Troy comes home with the baby, Raynell, he asks Rose to act as the mother. She agrees to this for the sake of the child, but tells Troy that he is now a “womanless man.” Rose leaves, and Troy sits in the entrance to the house. When Cory tries to push his way past him, Troy is enraged and demands that Cory say “excuse me.” Cory then points out that the house is not really Troy’s but rather is Gabriel’s. The two men fight, trying to hit one another with a baseball bat. Troy wins and kicks Cory out, and tells him to provide for himself. The next scene is set eight years later, at Troy’s funeral. Cory returns, now a Marine. At first he refuses to come to Troy’s funeral, but after Rose admonishes his rebellion and after he and Raynell sing an old song of Troy’s, he concedes. Gabriel comes and tries to open the gates of heaven, by blowing on his horn. This fails, and the gates only open when Gabriel does a traditional African dance.
[The plot summary was snarfed from Wikipedia]

The story, as you can see, raises a number of questions. First of all, how “african-american” is this story. I discussed this with my wife on the drive home. We felt that certain aspects were: certainly the notion of the Negro Leagues, the easy acceptance of place and position in the 1950s, the easy acceptance of infidelity and fostering of a child. Other aspects we felt were universal: the impact that one’s parents have on you. Fathers that both raise you to be like them, and have trouble when you try to be something better. The importance of family. The power of a mother’s love. None of the characters in this play isn’t damaged by life in some way, and it is these flaws that create the interest. So to what does the title refer? In many ways, the father’s (Troy’s) attitudes: He is buildng fences around himself and his family, to attempt to keep what hurt him out, and to keep his family together no matter what he does or how hard he behaves. Do these fences work? Yes and no. His family still gets hurt by his behaviour, but by the end of the play, you also see how his sons have been shaped by him. In some ways, it is about how we have to work to escape our personal fences. I definately want to see some of the other plays in this cycle.

As you can see from the summary, this is powerful stuff, the makings of powerful drama. With the right cast, it is gold. They had the right cast! The production headlined Laurence Fishburne as Troy Maxson and Angela Bassett as Rose Maxson. Supporting them were Bryan Clark as Cory, Kadeem Hardison as Lyons, Orlando Jones as Gabriel, Wendell Pierce as Jim Bono, and Vinctoria Matthews as Raynell. Powerful actors, powerful roles. I particularly noted the performance of Orlando Jones, who nailed the portrayal of Gabriel and his disability. Unlike some other reviewers, I had no problems with the performances of both Angeles Bassett and Bryan Clark. Basically, you couldn’t tell these actors were acting: they became their roles.

I should note the other production credits. The production was directed by Sheldon Epps, artistic director of the Playhouse. Scenic design was by Gary L. Wissmann, Costume design by Dana Rebecca Woods, Lighting by Paulie Jenkins, Sound by Pierre Dupree, Casting by Michael Donovan, and Stage Management by Conwell S. Worthington III and Lea Chazin (asst.). Managing Directory was Brian Colburn, Producing Director was Tom Ware, and the Executive Director of the Playhouse, for two more shows, is Lyla L. White.

A few other observations. The Pasadena Playhouse does a mix of shows, with a few of them trumpeting diversity or minority themes. This is good, and Sheldon Epps, the artistic director, is to be applauded for doing this. I have noticed, however, that when there is an “African American Play” (and I cringe just saying that, as we don’t say “Jewish” or “White” play), the audience mix changes. I would estimate that the audience last night was about 70% “people of color”. This says both good and bad things. First, I think it does of wonderful job of destroying the stereotype that African Americans do not partake of culture. The turnout for this play demonstrated this: put out the right material, and you have diverse audiences. But, as Cleavon Little once said, “Where the white folks at?” Why was the mix so radically changed? Why isn’t (for the most part) play attendance color-blind, with people judging plays based on the quality of the performance, and not the skin color of the actors or the playwrite? Why can’t we get this African-American turnout for musicals such as I Do! I Do! or plays such as Sherlock Holmes; why didn’t the caucasian population of Pasadena and LA turn out for Fences, Purlie!, Blue, and other similar plays Sheldon has brought in? Sigh.

Secondly, this performance is Sold Out for the entire run. In fact, it is so sold out they are offering Standby Seating. What is this? According to the Playhouse, a stand-by pass will allow an attending to fill a “no-show” seat a few minutes prior to show time. Stand-by passes may only be purchased the day of the performance one hour before show time, are cash only, and appear to be more than the ticket price ($60; $25 for students). If you are not seated, your money is refunded… that night only. This really bothers me; it is a sneaky airline practice that doesn’t belong at the theatre. If I, as a subscriber, pay for a seat, am unable to attend, and the seat is sold a second time, my ticket price should be refunded. The theatre should not be selling seats twice, especially subscriber seats. Poor form, in my view.

So, what’s next on the theatre calendar? Well, I’ve done a long post on this, but in short: {proof}, Sat 9/30 @ 8pm; The Marvelous Wonderettes, Sun 10/8 @ 2pm; A Chorus Line, Sat 11/4 @ 2pm; Sister Act, The Musical, 11/18 @ 9pm; and Dirk, 11/19 @ 2pm …plus I’m still working on tickets for The Musical of Musicals (10/21, 10/28, or 10/29); A Light in the Piazza (11/25, 11/26, 12/2, or 12/3), and 13 (12/30). A busy theatre season coming up. Note: Those of you on my friends list that might be interested in joining us to see Dirk, which is based on Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, for information, see this journal entry (which is friends-only).