August Wilson’s ‘Fences’ now at Syracuse Stage

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 05/12/10More articles
“Fences” runs through May 30th at Syracuse Stage’s Archbold Theatre.

It’s a line that’s quoted often from August Wilson’s “Fences,” and it comes early in the first scene. It’s Pittsburgh, 1957, and trash collector Troy Maxson (James A. Williams in the Syracuse Stage production) and his long-time friend Jim Bono (William Hall, Jr.) are sharing a payday bottle in the yard. Bono has queried Troy about a woman named Alberta he’s seen Troy joking with and, though Troy denies he’d risk his marriage, they get to riffing on Alberta’s legs. She is apparently heavy-set, but Troy – forgetting his cautious stance and lapsing into his more mischievous, extravagant self – says vividly that legs don’t matter much anyhow. “You just push them out of the way. The hips cushion the ride!”

In what seems a split second later, Troy’s wife Rose (a terrific Kim Staunton, who fully holds her own) comes out the kitchen door onto the porch and into the yard. Not missing a beat Troy tells her to go on back in – he says they’re engaged in “man talk,” that he’ll “have some talk for you later – you know what kind I mean.”

Perhaps I was primed for this whole exchange. Not ten minutes before this, I sat in the balcony at Syracuse Stage and engaged in some woman talk myself – to wit, the sheer pleasure of watching Denzel walk away in every movie of his I’ve seen. Denzel Washington, as everybody reading this surely knows, is starring in the 13-week Broadway revival of “Fences” that opened April 25th. That production is now vying for ten Tony awards, with four more nominations than the first Broadway production got in 1987 (which also won Wilson his first Pulitzer plus a bunch of other prizes), and it’s launched a flurry of reviews and discussion of both the play and Wilson’s work.

But, lest we waste any time pining for the sinuous Denzel, let me say right away that James A. Williams does Troy Maxson proud. And whatever kinks this thrilling first-rate production ever had, Tim Bond and his fine ensemble worked them out in Seattle.

Bond is the Stage’s artistic producing director, who came to us from Seattle several years ago, and he directed the “Fences” that’s here now. As it happens, he and his lead, Williams, attended the Broadway opening at the invitation of Constanza Romero, the playwright’s widow (and costume designer for both productions). What’s here now comes to us as a co-production with Seattle Repertory Theatre, where it ran March 26-April 18 – the city where Wilson lived until his death in 2005 – since Romero also hand-picked Bond to direct.

Twenty-five years after it opened at Yale Repertory Theatre, any production of “Fences” remains a dramatic event that discerning audiences will plan for and travel to see. “Fences” is part of Wilson’s epic ten-play cycle about African-American life across the decades of the last century, known variously as “The 20th Century Cycle” and “The Pittsburgh Cycle.” All but one of the plays occurs in the Pittsburgh neighborhood called the Hill District, where Wilson grew up (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is set in 1930s Chicago).

One of the most culturally active urban Black neighborhoods in the country during the 1940s and 50s, the Hill suffered a sharp decline in the 1960s. Much as Syracuse’s Urban Renewal seized property in the old 15th Ward in the same years, Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority seized land on the Hill and bull-dozed vast tracts for public housing projects and the massive Civic Arena, displacing thousands of people. Perhaps one of the most catastrophic of that era’s urban redevelopment projects, it helped prime Pittsburgh for riots following King’s 1968 assassination. In fact, the next play in Wilson’s cycle after “Fences,” “Two Trains Running” depicts that mass theft by way of what happens to the restaurant owned by the character named Memphis.

Against this backdrop, Troy Maxson has his human flaws for sure – years in prison for killing a man during a botched robbery, the old brick row house he lives in bought by skimming the disability checks of brother, the World War II veteran Gabriel (Craig Alan Edwards), and an older son, Lyons (José A. Rufino), about whom we sense there’s also a story. Troy’s built his second chance on trying to live up to his “job” as husband and father and bread-winner. Like many a reformed sinner, Troy’s a bit rigid about what that job is, more than a bit demanding about what he expects in return, and he can’t help yearning after a last fling to “be a different man.”

So “Fences” catches both the century mid-stream and its hero mid-life, on the lip of shuddering change. On this 1957 payday when we first meet Troy, he’s just complained about his job to the white bosses and put in for an unheard-of shot at driving, a promotion he’ll get and find hollow when he’s all alone in the garbage truck cab. The play also harkens backward to 1941 – the early days of the “great migration” of Southern Blacks to northern cities, the year Troy obsessively recalls that he “wrassled with Death” during a three-day bout of pneumonia in Mercy Hospital, discovering – in his new marriage to Rose and their year-old son Corey – that he had something to live for again. In its last act, “Fences” leaps forward too – into 1964, a year after the March on Washington, when Troy’s once exiled son Corey (Stephen Tyrone Williams), now a Marine who’s been to Vietnam, returns for Troy’s funeral and meets Raynell (Yemurai Tewogbola), the seven-year-old daughter Troy had with Alberta, whom Rose has raised as her own daughter.

The poster for “Fences” features a man swinging a bat. What gets us from 1941 to 1964, the core of the central action, resides in that image of Troy Maxson’s dream deferred – his brief stint in Negro League baseball some years back that didn’t work out, the lingering disappointment and loss that no amount of being responsible can quite erase, and the ensuing, corrosive anger when his son Corey hopes for a football scholarship to college. This possibility is too heart-breaking for Troy to contemplate, or allow Corey to risk, and that lost dream becomes a bludgeon between them. Certainly “Fences” is that story about fathers and sons and changing times. But the play’s wonder is that it’s so much more than this too – the sorely tested bonds of friendship between Troy and Bono, the overlooked older son’s attempts to get something and repay it, the brother's prophesies and, not least, the rising arc of Rose’s own liberation and the new day that provides for Raynell. We don’t see plays this rich very often.

From the May 13, 2010 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle. “Fences” runs through May 30th at Syracuse Stage, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse. Performance runs two hours and 35 minutes with one intermission. For Syracuse Stage’s new Prologues program, come one hour before curtain time to any evening performance for an informal conversation with a cast member about the play, Wilson’s work, and this production. Tickets at 315.443.3275 or online at The Tony Awards will be broadcast live from Radio City Hall by CBS on June 13.

Also in the Stage’s Sutton Pavilion through the play’s run, see “The Father/Son Project,” photographer Brantley Carroll’s portraits of African American fathers and sons in Central New York, a series inspired by “Fences.”

Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at

Below, a clip from the Seattle run of this production.

CATEGORY: Performing Arts
TAGS: August Wilson, Syracuse Stage, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Fences play, Pittsburgh Cycle, 20th Century Cycle, Timothy Bond, Constanza Romero, Troy Maxson, James A. Williams, Kim Staunton, Craig Alan Edwards, William Hall Jr., José A. Rufino, Yemurai Tewogbola, Stephen Tyrone Williams, urban renewal, Brantley Carroll, African American fathers and sons, Pittsburgh Hill District, American drama, Tony Awards, Nancy Keefe Rhodes
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 3.0/5 (20 votes cast)

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