Race and class become one on a family’s front porch in 1950s America, the setting of August Wilson’s “Fences.” The Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning drama tackled heavy issues in a light fashion during Friday’s opening night at Open Stage of Harrisburg’s thrust-stage theater.
Wilson, a Pittsburgh native, dealt with his share of bigotry as a mixed-race child of divorced parents growing up in the ‘50s. He died in 2005, only a few months after the Los Angeles opening of “Radio Golf,” his final play. Wilson’s “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” a compilation of 10 plays, including “Fences” and “Radio Golf,” are each set in a different decade and depict life for African Americans throughout the 20th century.
“Fences” centers on Troy Maxson, played by a wry Leonard Dozier, who conveys the emotion of a bitter father, straying husband and unfulfilled African-American man. At times, the audience may have laughed inappropriately, but Dozier conveyed passion and conflict that finally silenced even the faintest snickers.
Troy’s experiences with racial oppression allow him to view opportunity as something for whites only. Despite a promotion at work and the offer for his son to play football on a university team, Troy views whites, easy money and most institutions as “the devil.” Troy’s juxtaposition with son Cory (J.C. Payne) shows the failures of a father who doesn’t want his son to out-achieve him. Baseball talent Troy, prohibited from the Major Leagues because of his race and/or age, limits Cory to work and chores instead of allowing him to pursue college football. Physical fight scenes between father and son help build action while stressing their relationship and showing Troy’s age and hypocrisy.
Cory’s growth in the play leads him to the Marines, which he joins also to strike out against Troy, who similarly hates his own father. The audience senses a progression in Payne, and it feels like he actually matures during the performance. Payne effectively shows the pain of a child who hopes to do better than his own father and who struggles with repeating his parents’ mistakes while living under their roof. His final defiance against Troy—absence from his funeral—is spoiled by Cory’s mother Rose, a measure that saves Cory from becoming like him.
Sharia Benn’s Rose is not the only woman with whom Troy has fathered children. Son Lyons (Jeremy Patterson) and daughter Raynell (Seneh Green) each have different mothers. Rose is forced to raise Raynell after Troy’s mistress dies during childbirth, a tense moment that Benn nails.
Benn’s portrayal is overwhelming, as she encapsulates all the upset and abandon of a woman who has tried too long to make things work. With Troy’s news of his mistress’ baby, Benn’s easy-going Rose makes way for a heartbroken, betrayed Rose who won’t put up with nonsense any more. Her sweet demeanor changes to a deep and serious one in the following scenes with Troy, with passionate delivery that brought this reviewer to tears.
Troy’s best friend, Bono, is similarly authentic in Aaron Bomar’s performance. His gestures, facial expressions and line delivery are the most convincing in the show, as Bomar captures everyone’s favorite family friend.
Gabe (Michael Powell), Troy’s brother whom he uses for money, is a war veteran with a plate in his head. Consequently, Gabe runs around the neighborhood causing drama within the community. As the family prepares for Troy’s funeral, Powell delivers a powerful holler that, though crazy, is the most sobering moment for “Fences” characters, and the family on-stage seems to transcend the problems Troy has caused, even after his death.
The cast seems to be a real family, and the connections between characters benefit from this chemistry. These tough issues, showed in a relatable dynamic, remind us of America’s unjust past, an important step to improving the future. Open Stage’s production is a must-see, a drama, beautifully written and presented, hit straight over the fences.
August Wilson’s “Fences” runs through March 1 at Open Stage of Harrisburg, 223 Walnut St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit http://openstagehbg.com or call 717-232-OPEN.