August Wilson's 10-play dramatic cycle encompassing each decade of the 20th century has been rightfully lauded for its scope and ambition, a life's work of audacious greatness combining sustained inspiration with dogged determination. But while Wilson earned his canonization with immeasurable sweat and toil, let's not put his bust in a musty hall of fame quite yet. His work is still breathing fire, and thrashing about with life-filled restlessness, a point that Penumbra makes quite urgently with its production of Fences.
This is a show that requires you to elevate your intellect and soul (even while you sink deeper into your seat) to absorb incendiary layers of understanding of the human predicament, an experience profoundly grubby while simultaneously exalted and mythic. Wilson took the unique historical parameters of African-American life in the previous century and burned them to fuel a sensibility that rivals anything in literature, and under Lou Bellamy's direction we have a production teeming with understanding, heart, and relentless challenge.
The action takes place in the front yard of a humble house in Pittsburgh in 1957, where garbage man Troy (James A. Williams) arrives home with co-worker and buddy Jim Bono (Marion McClinton) on a Friday night armed with a pint of gin. Troy and Bono commiserate about work politics (namely, that all the drivers at work are white, while African Americans are relegated to heavy lifting) under the fond gaze of Troy's wife, Rose (Elayn J. Taylor).
Williams takes the stage with a roar of energy that he sustains throughout; his Troy is by turns charming, bawdy, and loving, with subtle hints of the bitter steel that will eventually predominate. Troy, it emerges, is a tragic character of classical dimensions. He reveals himself in semi-drunken monologues as a man of limitless energy who crashed against the immovable barriers of his existence: first his cruel sharecropper father, then years of imprisonment, then, harshest of all, America's color barrier when he became a star in baseball's Negro Leagues but was too old by the time Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It's that old, weird America poking itself back into our consciousness, reminding us that nothing has ever been quite sensible or tidy in these parts. Troy himself is hardwired into a mythic sensibility, shifting seamlessly from fibs about workplace exploits into stories about meeting death and the devil (McClinton gives a great supporting performance, gazing at Williams with fond incredulity laced with a hint of fear).
Soon the main conflict emerges, between Troy and his son Cory (James T. Alfred), a high school football star who is being recruited by a university and seems poised to break the mold of his father's frustrated ambitions. But Troy isn't having it. He hassles Cory mercilessly, setting up roadblocks to his son's success, and basically doing everything in his power to break his spirit.
Why, exactly? Because. And here's compelling evidence both of Wilson's genius and his dependence on a production capable of delving into his complexity without settling for easy answers. Alfred lends a heartbreaking depth to his work as Cory, his downcast features and shrinking body language like a fire hissing after getting doused with water. But the crucial factor is Williams and his hold on Troy's cruelty and capacity to inflict hurt.
Eventually Troy manages to alienate everyone in his life, to the point at which they stand removed, still recognizing his inherent power but either afraid of, or repulsed by, the majestically twisted path on which his cribbed circumstances place him (Taylor, as his wife, rejects him with sufficient honesty and passion to leave no room for argument). Williams carries this weight, raging with defiance against death itself as Troy's reality caves in upon him. It's high tragedy, and it comes with American grit too real to deny—all the beauty, ugliness, and truth of a life lived under the tyranny of history and happenstance. And we are reminded, in the end, that strike three eventually gets called on each of us.
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