By Stuart Duncan, Time Off, Princeton Packet
Theatre Intime and Black Arts Company present a revival of the August Wilson masterpiece.
Among theater scholars you can probably get a good argument going by asking whether August Wilson or Eugene O'Neill is America's finest playwright; and for those choosing Wilson, whether or not Fences is his best play. Wilson, who died in October 2005, set an incredible task for himself when, in 1983, he announced that he planned to write 10 plays, one for each decade of the 1900s, each depicting the life of blacks during that particular time.
He completed his self-assignment shortly before his death. Gem of the Ocean, number nine, was staged at Princeton's McCarter Theatre earlier this season; number 10, titled Radio Golf, has not yet reached Broadway. Fences was written third, but represents the 1950s and is generally acknowledged as being one of his masterpieces. It is being given a superb revival at Theatre Intime on the Princeton campus, a joint venture with Black Arts Company.
The show premiered in New Haven, Conn., at the end of April 1985, with James Earl Jones in the leading role, then went to New York where it won a Pulitzer Prize and four Tony Awards. As with nine of Wilson's plays of the century, the site is Wilson's hometown, Pittsburgh, specifically the Hill District. He wrote poetry before turning his attention to drama and bought his first typewriter for $20. The plot of Fences focuses on Troy Maxson, an illiterate garbage collector who yearns to drive the truck, though, in truth, he can't drive. The true love of his narrow life is baseball, at which he has some skills, but is too old for the Major Leagues, now that Negroes are finally being admitted. His life, therefore, has become a bittersweet mixture of baseball regrets and family love in a sometimes dysfunctional setting.
What makes playwright Wilson so admired are his speeches which distend "the well-made play" in much the same way as great jazz musicians take a popular tune and subtly move it to the unexpected. Here, director Roger Q. Mason has cast J. Paul Stephens, a professional actor and husband of Janet Dickerson, Princeton's vice president of campus life, as Troy Maxson. There are scholars who will argue that the name "Maxson" suggests that the father believes his son is his greatest achievement. If so it is difficult to establish that concept from the script. Stephens struggled a bit with the massive chunks of dialogue — Wilson often was criticized for over-writing, especially the exposition in the first act — but laid down a character so strong it was easily overlooked.
He got plenty of support, in particular from L. Kelechi Ezie, an undergraduate sophomore, as his long-suffering wife, Rose. You will have to wait until the second act before the playwright allows her to "let fly." The wait is well worth it. Osei Kwakye has great fun as Gabriel Maxson, the son who takes dysfunctional to new heights as he chases his own personal devils.
Christopher Inniss plays Cory Maxson, the son with talents in football and baseball, but who never seems to be able to live up to his father's expectations. Inniss brings a core of dignity to a difficult role that is most appealing. Late in the evening, seventh-grader Lauren Belayneh makes her appearance as young Raynell Maxson and wins the audience's hearts. Zennen Clifton plays the neighborhood friend, Jim Bono, and he too has to wait until the second act to show his stuff.
Typical Wilson — lots of exposition, just to make sure we have all the ingredients before he begins to mix the materials. Incidentally, when Hollywood was planning to film Fences after its success on Broadway, Wilson refused to permit a white director, arguing not that it was a case of racial preference, but rather that only a black filmmaker could understand the ghetto culture of the period. The film never got made.
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