Story: To hear Troy Maxson and his friend Jim Bono tell it, only Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson were more fearsome hitters in their time than Maxson. The Babe, of course, achieved unrivaled stardom and popularity as a core member of the New York Yankees and their ‘Murderers’ Row’ in Major League Baseball.
Gibson and Maxson, however, were deprived any opportunity to compete against their white peers because of their skin color. Now, it’s 1957 and Troy, age 53, is a trash collector in Pittsburgh, as is his pal Bono. The two met while they were in prison, where Maxson served a sentence for murder (likely second degree since it was not pre-meditated).
It’s been a decade since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, and the major leagues now have numerous black stars, including Henry Aaron, Willie Mays and Don Newcombe in addition to the recently retired Robinson. Bono also mentions a young Puerto Rican player named Roberto Clemente, who is playing well for the home town Pittsburgh Pirates, but Troy is unimpressed.
Maxson is resentful of the black athletes who can now play in the pros, an opportunity that didn’t arrive for him until he was 43 years old and well past his prime. He tells Bono that Robinson couldn’t have even made the roster on some of the Negro League baseball teams.
Worse, Troy berates his own son Cory, a high school senior who is being scouted by college football teams. Cory is smart, industrious and ambitious, but none of his hopes and dreams can measure up to his father’s satisfaction. Spurned by society in his own life, Troy demands that Cory abandon sports and concentrate instead on working at A&P and then maybe learning a trade so that he can earn a living as an adult.
Despite his bitterness, Troy is grateful for the love of his wonderful wife Rose and also takes care of his brother Gabriel, who was seriously injured in World War II and hasn’t been sound mentally since. Troy also has a son from a previous relationship named Lyons, an aspiring musician who incurs Troy’s disdain for pursuing such a frivolous dream.
Troy has his own opportunities in the present, including a chance to become the first black trash truck driver in his union. He also has his eyes on a co-worker named Alberta, something Bono warns him can have adverse consequences.
With it all, Troy forges forward building fences around his yard, obstructions that have different meanings to him, his wife and others. Does Troy think that these barriers can keep the ravages of racism away from him and his family?
Highlights: Lorna Littleway, who directed The Black Rep’s first production of August Wilson’s drama, Fences, in 1999, returns to direct this stellar rendition which currently graces the stage at Washington University’s Edison Theatre.
Other Info: Fences won Tony Awards in 1987 for Best Play, Best Actor (James Earl Jones) and Best Actress (Mary Alice) and in 2010 for Best Revival, Best Actor (Denzel Washington) and Best Actress (Viola Davis).
Littleway’s precise guidance elicits a number of excellent performances in The Black Rep’s new presentation of Fences, one of two Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas written by Wilson in his Pittsburgh Cycle, 10 plays which focus on the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century.
Jim Burwinkel has fashioned an impressive set design which is dominated by a series of fences at stage right and across the back of the stage. There’s also a ramshackle, two-story house at stage left and a backdrop serving as the sky.
Properties designer Katie Slovinski adds a number of old tires on the side of the house. The set also includes a clothesline and a tethered ball which Troy and Cory hit from time to time with Troy’s treasured baseball bat in the Maxsons' back yard.
Joseph Clapper’s lighting design fills the house with background illumination as well as focusing on action in the yard. Marissa Perry dresses Troy and Bono in blue-collar attire, Rose in simple dresses and Lyons in more stylish threads, while Kareem Deanes’ sound design favors a jazz motif which may indicate Lyons’ musical leanings and ability.
There’s a brief puzzle, though, when Deanes includes a radio broadcast of the Yankees playing the Pirates. They did meet in the World Series, but in 1960 not 1957, so perhaps we’re hearing a spring training game?
Ron Himes excels in the role of the cantankerous Troy, moving convincingly from romantic interludes with Linda Kennedy as Troy’s wife Rose and easy badinage with Robert Alan Mitchell as the good-hearted Bono to tense scenes with Brian McKinley as the dutiful but conflicted Cory. Himes succeeds in helping the audience understand the complexity in Troy’s character even in Maxson’s less admirable moments.
Kennedy delivers the show’s most arresting monologue in a powerful scene in Act II when Rose is confronted with Troy’s stunning revelation Her speech resonates with Rose’s own determination to forge a respectable life for herself and her family despite her own troubled past. It’s a scene which lingers long after the show concludes.
There’s splendid work by Mitchell as the genial Bono, a man who supports Troy in his troubles as well as his triumphs but also who tries to serve as the bitter ex-ballplayer’s moral compass. McKinley is very good as Cory, a young man who has his own thoughts about the future and chafes at Troy’s unreasonable demands.
Steven Maurice captures the easy-going, artistic nature of Lyons, another of Troy’s sons who can’t match his father’s demanding decrees but appreciates Rose’s unconditional love. Richard Agnew is effective as the good-hearted Gabriel, a mentally challenged man whose bugle blowing is a constant irritant to neighbors and whose injury actually helped Troy financially. Lena Sanaa Williams completes the cast in a brief but pleasant portrayal of young Raynell.
Despite a surprising number of muffed lines at last Saturday’s performance, The Black Rep hits this production of Fences out of the park.
Company: The Black Rep
Venue: Edison Theatre, 6445 Forsyth Blvd. at Washington University
Dates: January 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21
Tickets: $20-$45; contact 534-3810 or www.theblackrep.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Joe Clapper and Philip Hamer