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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Joe Turner’s Come and Gone has come back to Broadway (a review)

lawrence-jacob-migration-of-the-negro-panel-no-3

The caption for this Jacob Lawrence painting ("The Migration of the Negro, Panel no. 3) reads, "In every town Negroes were leaving by the hundreds to go North and enter into Northern industry." It's at the Phillips Collection (Washington, D.C.).

August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, set in 1911, deals with the separation of black people in America from their cultural roots. Most of the characters in this play had come to Pittsburgh from homes in the south — part of the “great migration” that was the subject of Jacob Lawrence’s remarkable series of paintings (above and below). August Wilson described it this way in his introduction to the play:

From the deep and the near South the sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves wander into the city. Isolated, cut off from memory, having forgotten the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces, they arrive dazed and stunned, their hearts kicking in their chests with a song worth singing. They arrive carrying Bibles and guitars, their pockets lined with dust and fresh hope . . . .

lawrence-jacob-migration-of-the-negro-panel-no-45

The caption for this Jacob Lawrence painting ("The Migration of the Negro, Panel no. 45) reads, "They arrived in Pittsburgh, one of the great industrial centers of the North, in large numbers."

But when we saw this play last weekend at the Belasco Theatre (West 44th Street, Broadway), we realized that at least one of the actresses was even less connected to the cultural milieu of August Wilson than the characters in the play were to their ancestors’ African heritage.

The telling moment came in the play’s final minutes, as Herald Loomis (Chad L. Coleman), meeting his wife Martha after ten years apart, becomes overwhelmed with bitter emotion and pulls a knife. Trying to bring him to his senses, Martha (Danai Gurira) urges him to “look to Jesus. Even if you done fell away from the church you can be saved again.”

Martha begins to quote the familiar words of the twenty-third Psalm. After a minute, the words of Scripture strike a chord with the distraught Herald Loomis:

MARTHA: “Even though I walk through the shadow of death — ”

LOOMIS: That’s just where I be walking!

MARTHA: “I shall fear no evil. For thou art with me. Thy staff and thy rod, they comfort me.”

LOOMIS: You can’t tell me nothing about no valleys. I done been all across the valleys . . . .

That’s how Martha’s line was spoken last Friday night: “Thy staff and thy rod, they comfort me.”

When he wrote this passage, August Wilson must have felt that he was making it easy for any actress playing Martha by giving her lines she would already know. Wilson himself surely learned Psalm 23 by heart at an early age; he must often have heard the verses spoken in church. The phrase “Thy rod and thy staff” (like other passages from the King James Bible) would have been part of Wilson’s cultural vocabulary, along with the tradition of gospel preaching also echoed in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

danai-gurira

Danai Gurira

But it’s clear that Danai Gurira wasn’t familiar with Psalm 23 before she took on the part of Martha Pentecost — otherwise, she never would have transposed “staff” and “rod”. For her, this was just another line she had to learn. We couldn’t help wondering if this actress even knew the theological implications of the name “Pentecost” that her character had taken. (With some research, Emsworth has ascertained that Ms. Gurira is about 30 years old, a playwright as well as an actress, and a native of Zimbabwe. We infer that she never attended a Christian mission school in that horribly troubled country.)

It is, of course, unfair to this exceptionally well-acted production for Emsworth to dwell at such length on a minor blunder by one actress. (It’s especially unfair because we saw a preview performance.) In fact, the casting by director Bartlett Sher is one of the many strengths of this show. Each of the nine adult characters in the play is portrayed vividly and in high definition.

chad-l-coleman

Chad L. Coleman

The best part of seeing an August Wilson play is not necessarily the storyline, but the pleasure of getting to know the characters and watching them interact. But of the several Wilson plays we’ve seen on stage, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone has, we think, the most compelling plot and subplots. Former deacon Herald Loomis (Chad C. Coleman) arrives at Seth Holly’s boarding house shorn of his faith and looking for a wife from whom he was cruelly torn ten years earlier. Long-time boarder Bynum Walker (Roger Robinson) wants to find a shiny man that he met in a vision. Mattie Campbell (Marsha Stephanie Blake) wants to recover a husband who left her. 

And what of the various performances? We especially enjoyed Ernie Hudson’s performance as Seth Holly. the grumpy owner of the Pittsburgh boarding house where all the play’s action takes place. We think perhaps Holly was the character August Wilson himself liked the most: the only character born in the North, a devoted husband, a trick worker in a machine tool and die shop, the financially astute proprietor of two businesses on the side, a skilled metalworker, an aspiring entrepeneur, a small-scale vegetable gardener, and a man impatient with the superstitions and unsettled ways of his boarders from the south. We also appreciated Latanya Richardson Jackson as Seth’s tolerant, warm-hearted wife Bertha.

playbillBut the finest performance in the show is given by Roger Robinson as the Hollys’ boarder Bynum Walker.  He’s a “hoodoo” man who makes potions with roots and pigeon blood, and he has the ability to “bind” people together (with the qualification that “You can’t bind what don’t cling”!). The scene in the play that Emsworth remembers most vividly is not one that was acted on stage, but instead a scene described by Bynum, the dramatic story of his magical encounter with the “shiny man” who showed him how to find his “song,” the “Binding Song.”

It’s a banner year for theater-going when you get to see not one, but two August Wilson plays. See Emsworth’s review of a remarkably good production of Fences in Rochester in June. Here’s the link.