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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Why would a black actor want to play in a Priestley play, anyway?

As Emsworth noted in an earlier post, certain factions have been lobbying the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario) to hire more actors of color and to cast them in lead roles. Why wasn’t a black actor considered for the lead in An Inspector Calls, they ask, referring to the J. B. Priestley play that was at the Shaw in 2008? (See Emsworth’s review in this post.)

j-b-priestleyWe’re just not sure Priestley himself would have returned the compliment. We’ve been reading Priestley in recent weeks, and just as we were annoyed by the hard-left politics of An Inspector Calls when we saw it on stage at the Shaw last spring, we bristled at the casual racism we found in the old lefty’s books.

Not that the three Priestley books we read (two novels and his travel book, English Journey) actually had anything to do with race.  The novels don’t have any black characters, and Priestley apparently failed to meet any black people during the several-month tour of England that he took in 1933 to gather material for English Journey.

good-companionsNo, the references to race in these books of Priestley’s are entirely random and gratuitous. It’s not just that Priestley’s fictional characters have a habit of dropping the “n” word from time to time — including characters who are presumably speaking Priestley’s own mind. It’s also offensive passages like this one, from the sixth chapter of The Good Companions, Priestley’s successful 1929 novel. One of his characters, Inigo Jollifant, walking near a train station, is surprised to hear someone playing the banjo:

Tired as he was, Inigo found that his feet itched to break into a double shuffle. If the station had been crammed with grinning coons, buried under melons and cotton blossoms, he would not have been surprised.

Or this telling passage from the Lancashire chapter of English Journey, in which Priestley describes his visit to a school in a Liverpool slum quarter for mostly mixed-race children. Most of the girls, the vicar at the school told him, would probably become prostitutes, “following the female family tradition of the quarter.”

I suggested that some of them, especially those with negro blood in them, might prove to have theatrical talent, like the “high yallers” of Harlem; but he replied that in his experience they had never shown any signs of possessing such talent. (But have they ever been given a chance? I doubt it.)

Sadly, this talented playwright, this supposedly progressive thinker who was one of Britain’s leading intellectuals, was also one of those people who felt compelled to pigeon-hole people. To Priestley, what black people were good at was pickin’ and grinnin’.

eddie-anderson-in-you-cant-take-it-with-you

Eddie Anderson was Donald in You Can't Take It With You. Anderson also worked with Jack Benny as "Rochester."

What a strange pathology! But it was widely shared in his era. I saw another random example of it over the holidays in the Academy-Award-winning movie You Can’t Take It With You. Toward the end of the movie, the eccentric Vanderhoof family is packing up to move from Manhattan to Connecticut, and there’s a quick exchange in the kitchen between Rheba, the household cook, and Donald, the handyman, who are black.

Donald tells Rheba he’s worried about having to move — what if they don’t have “relief” in Connecticut? Assured by Rheba that they have “relief” everywhere, Donald gives a wide smile and relaxes. (This cringe-making scene cannot be blamed on George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, who wrote the original Broadway hit play; it appears only in the movie and must therefore be blamed on Frank Capra.)

That was in 1938. But public stereotyping of black people was still going on in the United States in 1959, when Bob Gibson, one of the heroes of my youth, was coming up with the St. Louis Cardinals. In his fine autobiography, Stranger to the Game, which we just finished, the Hall of Fame pitcher tells how he was interviewed by Sports Illustrated in 1959 during spring training.

I felt reasonably good about the interview. When the magazine came out, there was a forgettable short story accompanied by a photograph with an unforgettable caption that said something like: “I don’t do no thinkin’ about pitchin’. I just hum dat pea.”

bob-gibson-1961-card

Gibson's 1961 Topps baseball card

Gibson was a college graduate and an articulate man who certainly did not talk like Uncle Remus. Gibson resented the “quote” (he never said any such thing, let alone in dialect) and boycotted the magazine for decades.

How might a black actor feel about speaking the lines of a playwright who thought about black people as J. B. Priestley did? Well, the plays themselves — we’ve read several besides Time and the Conways and An Inspector Calls, which we’ve seen — don’t get into race. Presumably Priestley was careful to keep it out of his plays, and if he hadn’t, we suppose that a Shaw Festival director would make cuts and alterations.

The actors at Shaw Festival have no qualms about the works of Bernard Shaw, despite his appalling enthusiasm for the vicious, ruthless, totalitarian Soviet Union, next to which Priestley’s off-handed racism hardly seems worth mentioning. So bring on an all-black cast for the next production of An Inspector Calls!

Not enough color at the Shaw Festival?

(October 2008) To his dismay, Emsworth has belatedly learned that the diversity police have been hectoring Jackie Maxwell, Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, for not bringing more actors of color, more directors of color, and more plays by playwrights of color, to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The hue and cry is being led by one Andrew Moodie, who is apparently a Canadian playwright of some distinction. (Emsworth makes no pretense of being up on contemporary theater, especially in Canada.) Moodie’s campaign, which he calls “Share the Stage,” was seconded not long ago by J. Kelly Nestruck, the redoubtable theater critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail, who claims he was “suddenly struck” earlier this year with how “white” the Shaw’s company was.

The wedge here is the Shaw Festival’s friendly competition with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, an institution which Nestruck patronizingly says is now up to snuff, diversity-wise.  Jackie Maxwell gets credit for “gender diversity” (what an dreadful phrase!) at the Shaw Festival, but they’re blaming her for not trying hard enough on race.

Well, now — how is she to do this at the Shaw Festival? It’s an institution whose every season is anchored around two plays by Bernard Shaw himself, a white guy who wrote plays about white folks. And all its plays (per the Festival’s “mandate”) are supposed to have been written, or at least set, during Shaw’s lifetime (1856-1950).

We pause for historical reflection.  Here in Rochester, we’re steeped in the American suffrage movement, because Susan B. Anthony lived here and her 19th-century home, now a museum, is here.  History tells us that before the Civil War, abolitionists and suffragettes made common cause.

But Anthony’s relationship with Douglass (together again in bronze in a Rochester park) cooled when black leaders wanted to put women’s rights on hold while civil rights for black people were being consolidated. So there’s a tiny touch of irony when Jackie Maxwell is accused with putting racial diversity on the back burner now that she has gotten “gender diversity” at the Shaw.

There are plenty of new plays by and about people of color. But unless they’re set before 1950, they’re not plays that the Shaw does. So how, exactly, is the Shaw Festival supposed to diversify, color-wise?

Well, Moodie and Nestruck want the Shaw Festival to feature more actors of color in plays by Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Noel Coward. After all, when The Glass Menagerie is played in Bombay, doesn’t it have an Indian cast? When they do Blithe Spirit in Lagos, isn’t the cast Nigerian? There are people of all ethnic backgrounds in Ontario (as in New York State). So if Denzel Washington can play Brutus (see the picture above, with Stratford Festival veteran Colm Feore, in the foreground, as Cassius, in a Washington, D.C. production last year), why can’t there be a black Undershaft at the Shaw Festival?

If that were to be, Emsworth would nominate Derrick Lee Weeden. On the basis of his breath-taking performance as Othello at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater last winter (with Paul Niebanck as Iago), Emsworth ranks Weeden with the best actors we’ve seen in Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, not excluding Christopher Plummer or the late William Hutt. But Weeden is, regrettably, not part of the Shaw’s repertory company, and the Shaw Festival is at a disadvantage in trying to recruit an actor of his ability. (He’s acted with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for many years; see this link.) The Shaw Festival doesn’t do either Shakespeare or contemporary plays, and from 1856 to 1950, there just weren’t that many important plays written by or about people of color.

There’s no reason why actors of color can’t be cast in many Shaw plays, as indeed they sometimes are. As Mr. Nestruck points out, Nikki M. James has one of the lead roles in Caesar and Cleopatra at the Stratford Festival this season. But in many cases, color-blind casting in a Shaw play would tend to confuse audiences and to distort social relationships that are at the heart of the plays.

And many Shaw plays are largely concerned with subtle gradations of class, and with interactions between English people of different ranks of life. Pygmalion is the story of a poor flower girl who encounters a rich, upper-class intellectual. Getting Married (one of the highlights of the Shaw’s 2008 season, highly recommended by Emsworth) has a lot to do with a lower-middle-class greengrocer’s relationship with the family of an English bishop.

The precision with which Shaw sketched class relationships in his plays is at the core of his genius. So how disorienting would it be for audiences if a person of color were cast as either the greengrocer or the bishop in Getting Married? In 1902, could a black greengrocer possibly have been on such familiar terms with an upper-class white family? — we’d be asking ourselves. Or would a white greengrocer really relate in such a way to a black English bishop and his wife? The didactic Bernard Shaw fervently wanted people to think about his plays — but those are not the questions Shaw wanted his audiences to be asking. A director shouldn’t interject race where it would confuse.

Or take Mrs. Warren’s Profession, also at the Shaw Festival this year (see the Emsworth review). The most interesting relationships in the play are between Mrs. Warren, the former courtesan with lower-class origins, and her middle- and upper-class friends (and former clients) in the aristocracy, the arts, and the church. What would happen to the already challenging social dynamics of these relationships if either Mrs. Warren or the men were black actors? Indeed, since the paternity of Mrs. Warren’s daughter is in question, how would it be anything but confusing if all these actors were not of the same race?

Race is already an element in many American plays that the Shaw Festival performs, just as it is in many plays by contemporary black playwrights (like Mr. Moodie, one assumes). Where a character’s ethnicity is part of the play, an ethnically appropriate actor is needed. Would anyone cast a white actor in an August Wilson play? Of course not — black actors are needed to portray African-American culture. Mr. Moodie says one of his plays wasn’t considered by the Shaw Festival because it called for more black actors than the Shaw could muster. I’m betting that Mr. Moodie wouldn’t be happy if white actors were cast to play black characters in his plays.

In The Little Foxes, playing this year at the Shaw Festival, Lillian Hellman’s key lines about the Hubbard family’s exploitation of black people wouldn’t make much sense if the actors portraying the Hubbards were themselves black. On stage, To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t make sense unless Atticus Finch looks like a white man and Tom Robinson looks like a black man. In fact, since interracial marriage was rare in England and North America before 1950, casting a husband and wife as persons of different races in Shaw-era plays would often be jarring and incongruous.

Mr. Moodie and Mr. Nestruck might argue that audiences today simply overlook an actor’s skin color. Maybe so. After all, every theater performance requires an audience to suspend disbelief to one degree or another.

But a director needs to be careful how far she imposes on audiences. As I commented in an earlier post, one of the problems with Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival this year was the director’s decision to make both sets of parents of Romeo and Juliet mixed-race couples. It was a seriously distracting element.

Theater is visual, and appearance has always mattered in casting. We audiences strain if an actor doesn’t look the part. We wouldn’t buy the Shaw Festival’s Michael Ball as Jack Tanner, because he’s too old. We wouldn’t buy Deborah Hay as Tanner, either; she’s too female. (But at the Stratford Festival next year, we’re going to buy Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell!) We don’t buy Eliza Doolittle unless she’s truly pretty enough to dazzle a prince at the Embassy Ball.

Ethnic appearance won’t be important for every Shaw-era play or character, but it matters often enough that a director usually has little discretion as to the racial composition of her cast. Sometimes, of course, the question of race can be neutralized by choosing all-black casts, as was done, apparently with success, for a recent Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring James Earl Jones, among other distinguished black actors. Could the Shaw Festival mount an all-black production of Private Lives or Waiting for Godot? It could happen, one supposes — they’re plays with small casts.

But in general, the Shaw Festival’s perennial need for a relatively large company of white actors will tend to preclude all-black casts. To Emsworth’s sorrow, for the late August Wilson, a fellow native of western Pennsylvania, is one of his favorite playwrights, that probably means that Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, plays comfortably within the Shaw Festival’s mandate, aren’t likely to be presented there. But you can’t have everything everywhere.

Couldn’t the Shaw Festival hire well-known actors of color for particular productions? That’s not its policy. The Shaw Festival casts from its own repertory company. So even if Morgan Freeman were willing to commit several months to acting in Niagara-on-the-Lake (don’t we wish!), it’s not the Shaw’s practice to bring in “stars” to play lead roles. Should the Shaw Festival redefine itself or change its policies to placate the diversity establishment? This member doesn’t think so.

Color-blind casting and other distractions at the Stratford Festival

Gareth Potter and Nikki M. James as Romeo and Juliet

Gareth Potter and Nikki M. James as Romeo and Juliet

(September 2008)  This year’s Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) has a racially mixed cast. Emsworth is fine with color-blind casting and wouldn’t ordinarily think it worth mentioning unless it’s botched. That’s what happened here. (Emsworth reviews this unsatisfactory show at this post.)

In this production, Juliet is played by Nikki M. James, a young black woman, while Romeo is played by Gareth Potter, a young white man. At first I thought that director Des McAnuff was casting the entire Montague clan as a white family and all of the Capulets as a black family, all in a patronizing attempt to make the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets “relevant”.

Selfishly, I welcomed the prospect of a Romeo and Juliet in which I would be able to tell the factions apart by the color of their skin, for the same reason I am grateful that football players wear uniforms. Emsworth isn’t good with faces, and visual cues help keep him track of large numbers of characters on stage.

But this was not to be. Juliet, it turned out, had a black mother and a white father. Romeo, on the other hand, had a white mother and (how’s that? was he adopted?) a black father.

Mr. and Mrs. Montague, played by Irene Poole and Roy Lewis

Two multi-racial couples at the head of the feuding families? Too much of a coincidence to reflect color-blind casting; the director did this on purpose. But why? I missed several speeches during the play while I tried to figure out what he might have intended. I never did.

This was a distraction we could have done without. As it is, an audience trying to follow a play performed in Elizabethan English needs all its concentration to hear and understand what’s being said. A director owes it to his audience not to use gimmicks that draw attention away from the dialogue.

For that matter, what was director McAnuff’s point in having this Romeo and Juliet start in modern times, move back 400 years, and then revert to modern times? (In the last scene, coroners in modern dress arrive at the scene of the carnage at the Capulet crypt.) I didn’t get it. Once again, I was distracted from the play while I tried to make sense of it.

Personally, I don’t need gimmicks like color-coded casting, or like setting Hamlet in 1938 (as in another play at Stratford this season), to help me understand Shakespeare’s “relevance” to modern society. I wouldn’t buy tickets in the first place if I didn’t think Romeo and Juliet still speaks to the way we live now.

The cult of multiculturalism and its priests give the Stratford Festival their stamp of righteous approval, but say the Shaw Festival still hasn’t gotten religion on “diversity”. Emsworth loses patience in this post.