Fences, which just opened in an astonishingly well-acted production at DTC, is one of the safest choices from Wilson's historic 10-play "cycle" dramatizing decade by decade the realities of black life in the 20th century. This one is a monumental, if traditionally structured, work for the stage, up there with Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. Opening on Broadway in 1987—three years after Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Wilson's first major critical and commercial success—Fences earned the Pulitzer and the Tony Award, among scads of other accolades that year, and established the playwright as the real deal, an extraordinary new voice in American drama.
As his most honored, most popular and most widely produced play, Fences also might be Wilson's most "accessible" piece. That's theatrical code for "white people will like it." Accessibility is essential at DTC. If the predominantly white, Highland Park-centric audience at the old Frank Lloyd Wright-designed playhouse on Turtle Creek doesn't like it or doesn't get it—if it's too black—they'll toddle toward the exits in droves.
Remember the ugliness that accompanied DTC's 2004 production of Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog? That play, also a Pulitzer winner, spewed some heavy stuff about racism and violence that made the old white folk plenty nervous. During the run, the DTC box office was besieged with angry subscribers foaming with outrage at Parks' profanity-laden dialogue and edgy characters (black brothers named Lincoln and Booth). The irony hung thick over DTC's Kalita Humphreys stage just a month later when the musical Ain't Misbehavin' filled it with a cast of grinning, tap-dancing performers wailing Fats Waller tunes. "They like us as long as we're singin' at 'em," says one black Dallas actress who's worked at DTC. "But not when we're making them confront issues."
There's nothing offensive or even mildly controversial in Fences, whose characters and themes achieve the same timeless, universal resonance of Salesman or even King Lear. But that doesn't mean it isn't provocative. Wilson, who died in 2005 at the age of 60, didn't write for white audiences or black audiences. He made art for the theater—art that challenges preconceptions about black identity and about what it means in any decade to be American, male and misunderstood.
What's onstage at Dallas Theater Center right now proves that Wilson's plays have something eloquent to say to everyone who sees them. This one is alive with humor, anger, sexual tension, tragedy and all the other big emotions you crave in a good play. DTC may have waited decades to do Fences, but they've done it justice. The production is by far the finest thing this theater has offered this season—or last, or the one before that.
Directed by Jonathan Wilson (no relation to the playwright), this co-production with Hartford Stage and Portland Center Stage is cast with seasoned pros out of New York City and designed by Scott Bradley with enormous set pieces depicting close-set houses in a Pittsburgh slum. There are Broadway shows that don't look this much like a Broadway show. Every line, every incidental musical cue, every subtle fade of the lights is pitch-perfect.
In two acts playing out over three hours, Fences offers an exquisitely rendered portrait of one man's life and death and the effects of his moral failings on his family. Wilson wrote often of past-their-prime black men searching for meaning from a life of endless disappointments. He valued the sharing of family histories going back several generations. And again and again in his playwriting, he explored the knotty relationships between fathers who've watched dreams disappear and sons who dream of doing better.
The Loman/Lear in this play is Troy Maxson, a Pittsburgh sanitation worker in the late 1950s, chewed up with bitterness at being shut out of major league baseball by the pre-Jackie Robinson color barrier. At 53, with three children by three women, Troy, played at DTC by imported Equity actor Wendell Wright, moves like a once-gifted athlete gone bulky from booze and biscuits. He slips ball-field slang into the stories he spins while slugging down payday gin and hanging out with best friend Jim Bono (Don Mayo), who met Troy in prison, where he learned to play the game. The two now ride the rubbish route together. After work they kick the dirt around the grimy backyard of Troy's Hill District tenement house, riffing about the old days in the Negro Leagues when Troy hit seven homers off Satchel Paige.
In the first act, Troy's still willing to get up to bat when he has to. He's gone to union bosses to complain that only white workers drive the garbage trucks, while blacks do all the heavy lifting. He wins that one, getting reassigned to a driving job despite being illiterate and having no driver's license. Troy also sees himself as something of a player in that other way too. He's carrying on an affair in spite of a saucy relationship with pretty second wife Rose (Wandachristine). "I bunted when I found you," he coos to Rose. "I wadn't gonna strike out no more...I was safe. I was on first base lookin' for one them boys to knock me in, to get me home." Having a woman on the side, he confides when he's found out, "feels like stealing second base."
Troy and Rose have made a good home together, or so it seems in the beginning. Oldest son Lyons (Che Ayende) drops by on Fridays for a sawbuck loan, but he's slowly making his way as a musician. Teenager Cory (Robert Christopher Riley) has college recruiters interested in signing him to a football scholarship, something Troy is dead set against. He thinks he's protecting Cory from the hard knocks of a sports career, but the kid's convinced his dad is threatened by his talent and ambition. Get a job at the A&P, Troy orders his son. Learn a trade. Do something safe that pays the bills, a sentiment right out of the post-war Eisenhower years.
Eventually Troy stops swinging for the fences—except for that one last romantic fling with the never-seen Alberta—and as the story gets darker, it's clear that the soul-killing pressure of family responsibility is wearing down the big man. Willy Loman shifted all of his unfulfilled dreams to the shoulders of son Biff. With relentless bullying, Troy does just the opposite with Cory, stifling his son's idealism about the future.
He drives Cory away. And Rose. And his own brother Gabe (the superb Ray Anthony Thomas), a brain-damaged peddler who carries a trumpet to ward off the "hell hounds" nipping at his heels. Recurring in many of Wilson's plays are mentally ill male characters who serve as mystic oracles able to see into other dimensions. Such men turn up in King Hedley II (my favorite in the Wilson cycle) and Joe Turner's Come and Gone, given a beautiful production last year at Fort Worth's Jubilee Theatre. Gabe remains peripheral in Fences until suddenly he's center stage at the play's dramatic high point.
James Earl Jones gave a career-changing performance as Troy Maxson in that 1987 Broadway debut of Fences. At DTC, there's some of Jones' boom and gloom in Wendell Wright's Troy, but he makes the role his own through carefully placed physical adjustments as the years pile up on the character. The rise and fall from dignified, virile patriarch to broken man is acted by Wright in the way he moves even more than through the words he says. Wright's breathing changes as he turns the volume down on Troy's life force. His leonine head grows heavier. He visibly deflates. In the end he's a tired old ballplayer, benched for good. Like all flawed heroes, he is terrible and great. And unforgettable.