Stage Door Review 2019

Fences

Mar 31, 2019

✭✭✭

by August Wilson, directed by Djanet Sears

Grand Theatre, Spriet Stage, London

March 22-April 6, 2019

Bono: “Some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in”

There are two important things to know about Fences now playing at the Grand Theatre, London. First, it plays only for one more week. Second, you must make every effort to see it. Fences from 1985 is one of the best of August Wilson’s majestic ten-play cycles of plays chronicling the history of African-Americans in the 20th century. Director Djanet Sears, a multi-award-winning playwright and director, directs the play with insight and compassion. The cast is flawless and one of Canada’s most acclaimed actors and directors, Nigel Shawn Williams, in the central role of Troy Maxson gives what may be the greatest performance he has ever given. The Grand’s production of Fences is an elevating, transformative experience that makes you see how powerful theatre can be.

For his Pittsburgh Cycle, Wilson wrote a play to represent each decade of the past century. Fences is his play for the 1950s, set in the back yard of the Maxsons' house in Pittsburgh in 1957. Troy Maxson has had a hard life. The youngest of eleven children, Troy was kicked out of home when he was 14 by his abusive father. Having no other way of surviving her took to stealing. One of his attempted robberies ended in Troy’s murdering the victim which landed him in prison for 15 years. In prison he learned how to play baseball and on his release he was able to join a team in the professional Negro Major Leagues that existed from 1887 to 1951 when that sport was still segregated in the US.

Troy is still bitter that he was not asked to join one of the major league teams once baseball leagues were integrated since his stats were better than some of the white players’. He viewed this as continuing racism, but his wife Rose (Ordena Stephens-Thompson) reminds him that he was just too old by then. In an important exchange, Bono (E.B. Smith), Troy’s best friend, tells him, “Times have changed, Troy. You just come along too early” to which Troy replies, “There ought not never have been no time called too early!” Now Troy is 53, works as a garbageman and still focusses on how his dreams for himself will never be fulfilled.

Through this discussion Wilson shows the continuing pernicious effects of racism. Having experienced prejudice and segregation most of his life has so altered Troy’s view of the world that can’t see in any other way even when he becomes the first Black man to be given what was formerly only a White man’s job in the company. This is why, when his teenaged son Corey (Ngabo Nabea) is being recruited to play football in college, he refuses to allow Corey to quit his job to practise and refuses to see the football recruiter. 

Troy may have hated his father but in his harshness towards Corey, in his distrust of his older son Lyons (Christopher Bautista) by his first wife, and in his temptation to see other women, he is simply repeating his father’s mistakes. Act 1 of Fences, where humour is mixed with tension, lays out the situation that Troy, his family and fiends live in and ends with his final refusal to let Corey be recruited for football. Act 2 depicts the consequences of Troy’s actions and they are more devastating than we could possibly have imagined.  

In Troy Maxson, August Wilson has created one of the richest characters in American drama. Troy is capable of tenderness and cruelty, self-pity and pitilessness, self-aggrandizement and self-abasement. To combine all these opposites into a natural and unified character requires a great actor and that is just what Nigel Shawn Williams is. The more we know about Troy the more we recognize how Williams has been using all the elements of Troy’s past to motivate Troy’s actions. Williams shows that Troy may think he is as unlike his own father as possible but he is blind to the harm his coldness has towards both Lyons and especially Corey, even when Rose and Bono point it out. Williams fully traverses the enormous emotional arc Troy covers in the course of the play and, even though Troy says nothing about, chillingly conveys to us how Troy comes to realize near the end that he has cut himself off from everyone who ever cared for him and is now absolutely alone in the world. It is a magnificent performance. 

As Rose, Ordena Stephens-Thompson also gives what may be her best ever performance. In Act 1 she portrays Rose as the sensible, logical, compassionate woman who serves as a rock for  a husband still fighting battles inside. In Act 2 when Troy tells Rose his terrible secret, Stephens-Thompson makes Rose’s response absolutely heart-breaking, with disbelief, anger and love mixed to give the scene such enormous emotional impact you can help but feel all the pain that Rose is feeling. Yet, in another great scene, she shows us that Rose has still not lost her sense of dignity and kindness despite what Troy has done, and this display of Rose’s inherent goodness will tug at your heart all the more.

Ngabo Nabea who plays Cory is major discovery. It is rare to find someone so young who is able to convey so clearly so many layers of emotion. Nabea frequently demonstrates that Corey’s words can convey just the opposite of what he says. When Troy forces Corey to address him as “sir”, Nabea shows us Corey is not mentally honouring his father. 

E.B. Smith lends Jim Bono all the unaffected familiarity one would expect between two long-time best friends. Nevertheless, as Troy starts to drift into behaviour that Bono opposes, Smith imbues his voice and manner with a gradual cooling as if the warmth of their friendship were dying out. Christopher Bautista is well cast as Troy’s elder, guitar-playing son Lyons. Bautista has Lyons embody 1950s cool from his movement and gestures to his manner of speech. Yet, Bautista also suggests that a disquiet lies underneath this calm surface whose possible causes we only discover at the very end. Peter N. Bailey plays Troy’s brother Gabriel, who suffered a head injury in World War II and now has visions of heaven where he thinks he has visited. He carries with him a trumpet without a mouthpiece to fulfil the task that he feels God assigned him of signalling the Last Judgement. While Wilson uses Gabriel primarily as a symbolic figure, Bailey makes the forlorn character appear as an all-too-real figure of damaged humanity.

Djanet Sears allows the play to unfold at an unforced pace during Act 1 while still building up the tension that will result in several explosions in Act 2. She has allowed seating on the stage on either side of Astrid Janson’s set to create the impression, consonant with all the baseball imagery in the play, that the action is being watched and judged by fans in two sets of bleachers.

Janson’s set of the Maxson’s back porch is thoroughly solid but they family’s house is made up of painted scrims that appear solid or transparent depending on how whether Jason Hand lights them from the front of from within. Sears achieves striking effects by having Hand reveal a character’s behaviour inside the house before or after a speech outside that may contradict what that character has just heard or said. This technique lends a richness to the dramatic picture showing words have consequences for characters even when they are supposedly absent from a scene.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Fences stands shoulder to shoulder with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) as complementary pictures of how the American Dream is seen in a specific time and place as well as how relations between husbands and their sons, wives and friends can be affected by beliefs inherited in the past. With a cast, director and central performance that cannot be bettered, one hopes that some theatre in Toronto or Ottawa will host this production to make it available to as many people as possible.  

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photo: (from top) Nigel Shawn Williams as Troy and Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Rose; Ngabo Nabea as Corey. © 2019 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets, visit grandtheatre.com.