August Wilson’s Fences at Rochester’s GeVa Theatre

Wiley Moore and Tony Todd in Fences

Tony Todd (right) and Wiley Moore (left) as Troy Maxson and his best friend Bono.

It’s too late now to do anyone any good, because the show closed a week ago, but GeVa Theatre just put on a fabulous production of August Wilson’s Fences here in Rochester.  Unfortunately we couldn’t make it down to GeVa till the run was almost over. We would have loved to have seen it again.

August Wilson

The late playwright

This is surely one of the very best American plays. We say that not merely because the play (a) is set in Pittsburgh, near our boyhood home in western Pennsylvania and (b) involves baseball. No, Fences is a masterpiece because of Wilson’s gorgeous cascade of language and his sympathy for the frailties of mankind.  What happens to the soul of a good man who is blocked from fulfulling his dreams? What if he finds himself resenting the promise and potential of his own son? How can a man who loves and honors his wife nevertheless end up in bed with another woman?

Jackie Robinson

Troy Maxson claimed that Dodgers star Jackie Robinson wouldn't have been good enough to play with him in the Negro Leagues

Fences is the tragedy of Troy Maxson (Tony Todd), a former star of the Negro Leagues whose career ended before baseball was integrated. Now he works on a garbage truck, bitter about missing out on the fame and money enjoyed by younger men like Jackie Robinson — who, he says, wouldn’t have been good enough to make the teams he and Josh Gibson played on.

Clemente 1959 topps

Clemente's 1959 baseball card

What Troy refuses to see is that times are changing. He tells his best friend Bono (Wiley Moore, who nails the role) that baseball will always keep the black man down. Why else, he asks, would the Pirates be keeping Roberto Clemente on the bench? In fact, by 1957, ten years after Robinson joined the Dodgers,  Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were among the biggest stars in baseball, and Clemente had been the Pirates’ full-time right fielder since 1955.

And Troy himself has won a victory in the struggle for racial equality. When he files a formal employee grievance against the policy that only white men could drive the garbage trucks (black men had to work on the ground), he and his wife Rose (Nora Cole) worry that he’ll simply be fired. Instead, his grievance is upheld and Troy is promoted to the cab of his garbage truck.

Rose is proud of their son, Cory (Jared McNeill), who has become a high-school football star and has been offered a college scholarship.  But Troy is afraid that sports will be a dead end for Cory as it was for him.  Or so he says — is Troy really jealous that his son might achieve the success in sports that eluded him?  He refuses to sign scholarship papers for his son and insists that Cory keep working at the neighborhood grocery instead of pursuing football.

Tony Todd has an unforgettable, modulated, gravelly voice, and he was a superbly physical Troy Maxson.  He had his audience in the palm of his hand from the opening scene in which Troy drinks whiskey with his buddy Bono (Wiley Moore) and brags about his wife and their vigor as lovers. Like Troy Maxson, Todd is a master storyteller; in one of the most unforgettable scenes in this show, Troy reminisces about his abuse at the hands of his own father. Tony Todd is known for his movie roles (Candyman, The Rock), but he is a first-rate actor, and here in Rochester he left nothing of August Wilson’s script on the page.

Nora ColeIn fact, the entire cast of this show was up to Todd’s standard, especially Nora Cole as Troy’s long-suffering wife Rose. This production richly deserves to be seen elsewhere — we thought it every bit as fine as the recent production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone on Broadway, which we also saw and loved (see this post) — but as nearly as we can tell, it closed for good here in Rochester.

Mark Cuddy

Cuddy

It was August Wilson’s general policy that his plays be directed by black directors.  We understand that GeVa Artistic Director Mark Cuddy obtained special permission from Wilson’s widow to direct Fences (which necessarily has an all-black cast) himself.

This exception for Cuddy didn’t get any particular public attention, so far as we know.  But the selection of another white man, Bartlett Sher, to direct the afore-mentioned production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone on Broadway did stir up a fuss. The choice of Sher aroused the ire of some African-Americans — in fact, we ran across one blogger (here he is) who complained hysterically that this was yet another “openly blatant example” of “insidious and pervasive American racism.”

It didn’t seem very “blatant” to us, and personally, we didn’t think GeVa’s production of Fences was tainted by having a white director. Perhaps Mr. Cuddy can’t claim to fully appreciate African-American culture. But people are still people. Who would argue that Mr. Cuddy shouldn’t direct Chekhov because he didn’t grow up Russian?  Anyway, the themes of Fences are universal, not tied to the experience of being black in America. We don’t see why Mr. Cuddy or Mr. Sher should have been disqualified from directing two of the very finest American plays simply because of their race, and we’re glad Mr. Wilson’s estate agreed.

We also think this show succeeded so well mainly because of its superb performers, not because of Mr. Cuddy, whose direction was unobtrusive. Our guess is that Mr. Cuddy had the good sense not to interfere with veteran actors who plainly understood Wilson’s play and what to do with it.

UPDATE: APRIL 2010.  Emsworth greatly enjoyed GeVa’s production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running.  See this link.

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