Mending Fences

It was a historic moment, of that there is no doubt. There I was in the bathroom of the Guthrie Theater, moments before the start of August Wilson's Fences, when I noticed a man standing in front of the mirror, adjusting his tie, checking his hair, seemingly unconcerned that the show was about to go on without him. I recognized the man immediately; he was August Wilson.

Until last Wednesday, the chances of running into August Wilson anywhere in the Guthrie were essentially nil. Fences is the first August Wilson play ever staged at the Guthrie; in the theater's entire history, this is only the fourth work by a black playwright (three of the others have occurred in the past two years). For most of its history, in fact, the Guthrie--from its myopic dedication to the Western European theater tradition to its deep, corporate pockets--has embodied virtually everything Wilson despises in American regional theater.

At the Guthrie, no love has been lost on Wilson, either--or at least that's been the perception. In response to public criticism that the Guthrie was ignoring Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning achievements by refusing to produce any of his plays, former artistic director Garland Wright--in an unfortunate moment of candor--let it be known that he didn't much like Wilson's plays and was therefore not inclined to produce them. This insult, in turn, led to the common (though misinformed) idea that the Guthrie had instituted a policy of snubbing August Wilson in favor of lesser, whiter playwrights.

To a large extent, the production of Wilson's Fences currently running at the Guthrie is seen by many as a long overdue act of contrition--a public display of repentance for the Guthrie's past artistic sins with regard to black playwrights in general, and toward August Wilson in particular. Recognizing Wilson to be the best, most famous, and most important playwright the Twin Cities has ever produced, the argument goes, the Guthrie has an obligation to acknowledge that fact in its play selection.

What has been lost in the chorus of self-congratulation surrounding this production is that the Guthrie does not, and never has had, a responsibility toward August Wilson. Until now, in fact, the idea of producing an August Wilson play--any August Wilson play--at the Guthrie ran counter to the theater's professed mission. Under Wright's 10-year tenure, the Guthrie regarded itself as a "House of Classics," and for better or worse, refused to yield to the trend embraced by most major regional theaters of producing popular contemporary plays to appease the hip-hungry masses. Rather than yield to the modern impulse to confer "instant classic" status on a work of art, the powers-that-be at the Guthrie have regarded time as the best critic. Fences--which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987--is the most contemporary play ever produced on the Guthrie's mainstage. In fact, before Joe Dowling took the reins as artistic director, few contemporary plays, whatever their merit or origin, made the grade.

Besides, it's not as if the Twin Cities have been suffering from a dearth of August Wilson plays. Penumbra Theatre produces one every year; over the past 10 years, it's presented almost the entire repertoire of August Wilson plays, some of them twice. Furthermore, because of Wilson's long association with Penumbra, these productions have consistently been among the best--if not the definitive--versions of Wilson's work. Given the Guthrie's legendary mishandling of racial themes in the past (an all-black casting of Death of a Salesman being perhaps the most bizarre example) it always seemed rather pointless for the Guthrie to even attempt an August Wilson play. And it still does.

Fortunately, the Guthrie has done the intelligent thing for once and bowed out this time, giving Penumbra complete artistic control. Still, this production is largely a symbolic triumph, not an artistic one. Penumbra first produced Fences in its 1989 season, and the version currently gracing the Guthrie stage isn't appreciably different. Then, as now, Penumbra artistic director Lou Bellamy held court with a fierce, commanding performance as Troy Maxson, the would-be baseball legend whose life has turned into a daily struggle against the injustice of history. And then, as now, Wilson's gift for turning a tiny slice of the African American experience into a universal chronicle of the nation's ills has the approximate impact of a fastball between the eyes.

The setting is Troy Maxson's front yard, 1957, 20 years or so after his prime in the Negro Leagues, when Jackie Robinson and other black ballplayers were beginning to make their mark in major league baseball. A garbage man and father of two young men he doesn't much like, Maxson has grudgingly accepted his responsibilities as a family man--as long as he has the freedom to gripe about it with his best friend, Jim Bono (played by James Williams), and drink himself happy on Friday nights. With the exception of Robbie McCauley's portrayal of Troy's wife Rose, which is as flat and wooden as one of Maxson's fenceposts, Penumbra's production is solid, if not spectacular. What saves it from being a fairly rote reading of Wilson's play is that Lou Bellamy is a man who knows how to rise to an occasion. From Troy's first garrulous salvo to his final, raging encounter with the devil, Bellamy rants, raves, jokes, intimidates, and rationalizes his way through Troy's lifetime of pent-up frustration and resentment. As Troy systematically alienates his son Cory (Ty Jones) by refusing to allow him to accept a football scholarship and thus "save" the boy from a life destroyed by sports, the hounds of hell slowly close in on Troy Maxson. Though they may eventually destroy him, the man doesn't go down without a fight. And this fight--the perpetual struggle against history and society on one hand, and the weight of responsibility and unrealized dreams on the other--is what Fences is all about.

"Some fences are meant to keep people in, some are meant to keep people out," advises Troy's friend Bono. In embracing Penumbra's production, and exposing it to a broader audience, the Guthrie has indeed taken an important step toward eliminating the institutional barrier that, in many people's eyes, stood between August Wilson and the Guthrie. The real barrier is still there, though: money, backed by the power to decide who shall and shall not grace the Guthrie stage. As long as that's the case, you can be sure that August Wilson will continue lobbying for separate black regional theaters, with access to comparable resources--no matter how many of his plays appear at the Guthrie.

Fences continues at the Guthrie Theater through May 25; call 347-2224.

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