By Micha Green, AFRO Washignton, D.C. Editor, [email protected]
Are fences used to keep people in or keep other factors out? Audiences are left begging this question throughout the Ford’s Theatre production of Fences by August Wilson and directed by Timothy Douglas. In one of the most popular and widely known of Wilson’s 10 decades play cycle, the Ford’s Fences reveals how societal expectations and institutionalized racism have historically played a major role in “fencing in” Black people and keeping them out from White spaces. In showing the negative and generational effects of discrimination, Fences offers a lesson of doing what you love, because as ominous as it sounds- you can’t hide from death. While the cast was warming up and still working out their kinks in the Oct. 2 media night production, the beauty and truth of Wilson’s words, the bold acting choices of the performers, and the strong design elements make for Ford’s Fences to be a worthy trip for theatre lovers and novices alike.
In a day and age where a large, hypermasculine, super-opinionated, multiple baby-mama having man holds the role of President of the United States, audiences at Ford’s Fences, are given a peak into a relatable male lead with the same brutish description in Troy Maxson (Craig Wallace). Besides the fact that Wallace depicts a loud, know-it-all, always gets his way father and husband, he is no Trump; but rather, Troy is a former Negro League player, sanitation worker, lower-middle class man who lives in 1957 Pittsburgh.
For those that have seen Denzel Washington’s Troy (either on Broadway, or film or both like this reporter) it is very important that before going to see the show to know that Wallace is no Washington. They don’t look alike, they make different acting choices and they process differently on stage. For this reporter, that’s what’s most refreshing- to see how Wallace personalized the character, bringing his own life experiences, disappointments and struggles to honor the truth and challenges of Troy Maxson.
In Wallace’s Troy, audiences see a Black man’s frustration with feeling stifled. His reticence to complete the fence, which is more clear through his acting choice than even Wilson’s words, becomes a symbol of Troy’s ultimate fears and goals all at once. Wallace, a veteran on D.C. stages, embodies Troy in a way that shows his pain, the secrets he holds and even a semblance of his former self- as a retired athlete. No movement was made or word was uttered without clear intentions, which allowed for moments where lines were fumbled or stepped on to seem quite real and honest to the narrative.
Wallace’s chemistry with his stage wife Rose (Ericka Rose) is one of the strongest and most believable aspects of the acting in Ford’s Fences. Wilson doesn’t write a lot of women, so when he does, they’re strong, well-developed and offers doses of morality and truth that can shake audiences to their cores. Rose, a powerful performer with a stage presence that lingers even once she’s gone, does justice to the character of Rose (what a name coincidence) in a way that leaves audiences begging hard questions about love and loyalty. Through Rose’s acting and movement, she is able to showcase the complicated layers of love and humanity. In a time where women were left to simply keep the house and cater to their husband’s needs, even with a traditional man’s man as a partner, Rose’s Rose is the boss and seems to keep up with the men in wit, interests and bossiness. For Rose’s portrayal of Rose, it’s far more than happy wife, happy life; she requires Wallace’s Troy to step up to the proverbial plate- an appropriate metaphor as baseball analogies are used throughout the play. Rose is a force on stage and was a standout in Ford’s Fences.
While audiences watch the husband and wife dynamic, they are also treated to the best friend and father and son duos between Troy and Bono (Doug Brown), Troy and Lyons (Kenyatta Rogers) and Troy and Cory (Justin Weaks).
Watching Brown’s honest portrayal of Bono is like seeing a fish swim in water- it was just natural. Brown and Wallace’s onstage chemistry was also beautiful to witness and when the moment comes when it is clear he can no longer be the friend he had been to Troy, his acting and processing is relatable and heartbreaking all at once. Brown’s internal acting shines on stage and shows a man battling fun, responsibilities, priorities and moving beyond his own setbacks.
The Lyons and Troy relationship is also one that requires good acting and backstory. It is clear from both Rogers and Wallace’s portrayals that Troy was not the best dad to Lyons. Although Wallace remains hard on his son, he gives him a pass that others don’t seem to get from Troy, and that is made apparent not only through text, but acting as well. While Lyons is written as the starving artist who is always begging for money from dear old dad and reimburses with his wife’s pay, Rogers makes the oldest son a person with whom audiences can empathize. There was a looming sense of further challenges in Rogers’ Lyons, which becomes clear and earned by the end of the play.
In contrast to Troy’s relationship with Lyons, his relationship with youngest son Cory is far more abrasive. A refreshing choice in comparison to other portrayals of Cory, Weaks does not act as if he is afraid of his father. There is a healthy level of father and son respect, but Weaks’ emphasis is on his own goals- leaving the house and not being under his father’s rule. At times it seems as if Weaks plays Cory a bit younger than a high school senior, yet the naivete becomes a good dichotomy, to the Cory seen at the end of the play. Further, Weak’s portrayal of Cory serves as background for Troy. “Perhaps he wasn’t always so mean” or “Maybe he was a fun dad at one time,” audiences wonder when seeing how Weaks interacts with Wallace. Once the football player aspect to Cory meshed with Weaks body, the more believable the character became. Further, once Weaks fully warmed up into the character of Cory his energy left audiences wanting more of the wood chopping, smart-mouthed boy on stage. The partner work clearly done between Wallace and Weaks allows for audiences to understand how like-minded and like-tempered Troy and Cory truly are.
Although not a main character, Jefferson A. Russell’s portrayal of Gabriel Maxson brought a refreshing sense of life and energy every time he entered. It is important to note the difficulty in portraying characters who are differently abled, yet Russell is able to bring truth to Gabe that makes him a multi-layered, complicated person who is integral to the storytelling. His movements and vocal choices show that he did quite a bit of research and was able to embody Gabe’s speech and movement difficulties. What was most beautiful to see, through all the layers necessary to portray someone with brain damage, was his deep love for his family and a desire to be independent and respected.
While her presence is brief, Mecca Rogers’ portrayal of Raynell is honest and super cute. Everything she says allows the audience to get a hearty laugh, even in a sad moment of the play. Her youthful and feminine energy is refreshing in the predominantly male cast, and as a young performer she holds her own. Just as the veterans on the stage, young Rogers’ acting choices and movements are made with intentions that become necessary to the narrative.
From all the actors’ choices the larger messages of the play shine. The characters’ challenges showcased the difficulty, not only in the 1950s, but to this day, in thriving as Black people in America. “The Fence” becomes a metaphor for institutional structures that stop Black people from succeeding. Moreover, the generational damage of institutionalized racism becomes apparent.- Troy being held back, resulted in him hindering his sons (particularly Cory). What’s most rattling for modern audiences is that these systems, cycles and roadblocks prevail to this day for African Americans.
Wilson has a way of using spirits or inanimate objects as a character in his plays. In Fences the Fence and Death are the inanimate characters. The Oct. 2 production of Fences at Ford’s marked the 14th anniversary since Wilson’s passing, yet in marking that moment, his words and spirit also loomed over the Ford’s Theatre. In a theatre that somewhat holds the spirit of Death- as that was the location where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated- there was a sense of anxiety that inevitably, everyone will die someday.
The strong technical design in Ford’s Fence thoroughly helped with the storytelling. The set design (Lauren Helpern) assists in helping audiences understand socio-economic background, the Maxsons’ isolation and allows for viewers to feel as if they are sitting in the family’s front yard. The “Fence” was developed throughout the play showing the passage of time and further emphasizing the metaphor of its presence for this family. The costumes (Helen Huang) and hair and makeup (Danna Rosedahl) assist in setting the time period, while also appealing to modern aesthetics, and perfectly suit each character. The lighting (Andrew R. Cissna) and sound (Nick Hernandez) wonderfully and sometimes creepily add to the other-worldly elements of the play, and in some ways become characters within itself. It was apparent through the cohesiveness of the design elements that there was a clear language between Douglas and his team, that made for a powerful telling of Fences.
Ford’s Fences will be running until Oct. 27. For more information and tickets to Fences at Ford’s visit https://www.fords.org/performances/current-and-upcoming/fences/.