Drama reveals angry underside of the peaceful 1950s
New Haven, Conn. — Fences Play by August Wilson. Directed by Lloyd Richards. August Wilson, whose play ``Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'' traced the sounds and fury of four black musicians during the 1920s, adds another volume to the history of black America with his latest work, ``Fences.''
Premi`ering at the Yale Repertory Theatre, where ``Ma Rainey'' opened one year ago, ``Fences'' charts the simmering territory of ghetto-bound blacks during the 1950s -- that deceptively slumbering decade out of which the winds of change of the '60s began to blow.
Against this backdrop of peaceful Eisenhower plenty, Wilson etches the racial flip side -- the smoldering underbelly of a Northern industrial city populated by blacks transplanted from the South. These displaced citizens of an earlier, more rural age are caught within the gears of history, inhabiting that social nether world bracketed by slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Hemmed in by such historical social forces, it is these blacks who form the dramatic core of ``Fences.'' Wilson's protagonist, Troy Maxson, a Mississippi-born middle-aged garbage collector, is a man rich in individual and collective conflict.
As a former Negro League baseball player who hit above .400 and scored home runs off Satchel Paige, Troy is embittered by his past inability to break the major league color barrier as well as his current status as a rubbish collector. Although he is superficially contented with his lot, including the then unusual opportunity of home ownership and the support of his saintly wife, Rose, Troy's subterranean anger has become misdirected toward his son, Cory, himself a talented ballplayer eager for the attentions of a white college recruiter.
As played to powerful perfection by James Earl Jones, Troy is a towering, occasionally terrifying, figure who both endures and inflicts injustice, and it is to Wilson's credit that he dramatizes both sides of this conflict. As in ``Ma Rainey,'' which just won the New York Critics Drama Circle award for best new play, the playwright includes moments of racial anger turned inward. It's a technique all the more effective in ``Fences,'' because of the complete absence of white roles. By refusing to portray his characters simply as victims, Wilson sidesteps sentiment and stereotype. Indeed, Troy's downfall, while somewhat dramatically unsubstantiated, occurs by his own volition: An adulterous affair costs him the devotion of his wife and ultimately his will to live.
Directed by Lloyd Richards, artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre and director of ``Ma Rainey,'' ``Fences'' plays as a taut tableau that takes place entirely on the front porch of the Maxsons' home. While the setting is occasionally restrictive and Richards's direction keeps the actors hovering centerstage, the actual set by James D. Sandefur (a Yale graduate student) powerfully evokes images of both domesticity and decay as well as destruction yet to come.
In keeping with his play's historical locus, Wilson has kept his tone muted but not static. Characters' explosions of rage are counterbalanced by imploded anger evident in such lines as when Troy tells his wife, ``I give you the lint from my pocket, the sweat from my brow. I can't give you tears, I done spent them.''
But even more arresting are those scenes in which Wilson limns his characters' other emotions and gives specific voice to their unique oral history. These moments, which surface in the form of small spoken narratives -- Troy regaling family members and neighbors with stories of buying furniture, leaving home, and wrestling with death -- are satisfying in their lyricism as well as their colloquial accuracy. It is here that Wilson's ear for dialogue and his background as a published poet are most in evidence, aided in no small way by the cast's eloquence, particularly Jones's.
Too, these scenes function as a trade-off to Wilson's occasional structural missteps. Flaws include too-obvious plot devices, a tendency to labor metaphor and symbol (Troy's half-wit brother is named Gabriel), and a coda that rather too neatly resolves family estrangements. Still, the play functions admirably as an exploration of a man rapidly reaching his emotional, intellectual, and spiritual limits.
In addition to Jones's nuanced and controlled performance as Troy, Mary Alice brings equal weight to her role, especially when she finally unleashes on Troy late in the second act. Courtney Vance, as the son, Cory, is also adept at keeping pace with Jones.
Unfortunately, Ray Aranha, Charles Brown, and Russell Costen, as Troy's neighbor, eldest son, and brother, respectively, have lesser roles to fill and consequently seem underused. During the five minutes that she is on stage, Cristal Coleman plays the six-year-old daughter, Raynell, with spirited naturalness. And in the final moments of the play, Costen manages to conjure real pathos with his mute and desperately mimed attempts to open heaven's proverbial gate. The resulting beneficent glow -- lighting design by Danianne Mizzy -- falls like a blessing.