Monday, September 24, 2012

Fences - a powerful family drama that transcends race

As I left the theatre, I could hear the booming of the fireworks display at Coors Field but I knew I had just seen the real fireworks. Denver Center Theatre Company's new production of August Wilson's Fences is fiery, ardent, impassioned, human and an acting tour de force. I don't know what they did at Coors Field but they were swinging for the fences in the Space Theatre.

David Alan Anderson as Troy Maxson is a powerful, volatile, commanding presence but is part of an excellent ensemble. However Kim Staunton stands out as Rose, the very human but equally powerful, stalwart wife of Troy.

The time is 1957. The place is Pittsburgh at the dawn of the civil rights era. Brown vs. Board of Education, the land mark case that would result in desegregated schools, was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1954. The great desegregation battles were just getting under way. Even in northern cities, it was a black and white world. Against that backdrop the play transpires. The play is about race and racism, but as importantly it is about families and generations and fathers and sons.

Troy had been a talented baseball player. But due to a term in prison and the times, his dream of playing ball professionally never materialized. This hangs over him and fuels the anger that is always just beneath the surface; when he can explode in an instant. That anger is particularly focused on his younger son Cory (Calvin Dutton).

But Rose continues to stand by him: the very model of a loving wife, soothing his anger, taking care of him, trying to smooth over his outbursts at Cory. But under this is a steel that so far has not been overly apparent. When the ultimate family crisis occurs though the steel becomes all too visible. She matches Troy's power and outburst with her own. The power she displays just grabs you.

While the play must always be seen in the context of race and the time, like all good plays it transcends that. This is a play about people and families; their wants and dreams, strivings and failures. Troy's frustration, for plot purposes, is rooted partly in the circumstances of the time, but Troy makes his own choices. And in many ways blames his circumstances for what has happened to him rather than seeing them in the choices he made. That is true of all of us. This is indeed a play about families, black or white. Troy could as easily be a white man, or Hispanic, or Asian in America. He could be Willy Loman, though not going quietly but battling.

And Rose? She does what many women all do: she is the glue that tries to hold the family together; she is the person who, despite hurt or circumstance always tries to rise above; to put her hurt aside and do what needs to be done.

All of the cast is outstanding, Jerome Preston Bates as Troy's war-ravaged brother Gabe, James T. Alfred as the other son Lyons, Marcus Taylor as Troy's 'best' friend Bono, and alternately Nadia Monet Brown and Emmi Grace Sullivan as Raynell.

This is the second time that Denver Center Theatre Company has staged Fences. The first was directed by the late Israel Hicks, who staged all ten of the Pittsburgh cycle at DCTC. That production was powerful as is this one, directed by Lou Bellamy. It plays through October 14. It should be seen.

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