Are there generational curses? Does black excellence replace racism? Can we visit the sins of the father on the child? These questions stuck in my mind as I watched Bowie Community Theater’s well-done performance of Fences. It’s a show that will make you feel and question deeply.
Fences by August Wilson had a long acclaimed theatrical run. First produced on Broadway in 1987, the play won Tonys for Best Play, Best Actor and Best Actress, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 2016 it was adapted into a movie starring two Academy Award winners, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Wilson, the all-around American Shakespeare, demands your full attention as an audience member, as a director, as an actor, and even as a critic.
Fences is set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the late 1950s and centers on Troy Maxson, a disgruntled former Negro League baseball player who works as a sanitation worker. At one time considered one of the best players in black league baseball (once batting .437 and 37 homers), Troy can no longer play professionally due to his age, 53, and a history in prison, leaving him feeling bitter towards life and the people around him.
Thirty-year veteran actor Louis B. Murray, who appeared in several other Wilson plays, portrayed Troy in a way that transcended Wilson’s fiction. Every monologue and line of dialogue from Murray was complex and full of meaning, portraying Troy as a real person.
One of the strongest themes of the series was father-son rivalry. There was a lot of tension between Troy’s son, Cory, because Cory wanted to play college football. Like many parents, Troy wanted his son to get into something stable like a profession and not try to make it in something distant like professional sports or, God forbid, the arts (like his other son, Lyons, a jazz musician did it). Part of the reason Troy was skeptical of professional sports as a way to help uplift the black man was his view that black excellence would go unrewarded there: “I know that 100 [n-words] who can play baseball better than Jackie Robinson.
Denzell Massenburg’s Cory brought effective tension to his scenes with Murray. Their simple parent/child argument over buying a TV or fixing the roof was an example of the chemistry between these actors.
The relationship between Troy and his wife Rose is complex and deep. Troy “love[s] she is in so much pain. But that didn’t stop Troy from doing something to Rose that changed his family dynamic forever. JoAn Monplaisir was fantastic in the scenes where Rose begged Tory to let Cory pursue her athletic dreams.
Shawn Armwood Sr. played Troy’s war veteran brother Gabriel with pain and subtlety. Always carrying a trumpet, the character alluded to the biblical archangel Gabriel.
Troy’s friend and sanitation colleague, Bono, was a simple man who liked to go home with his wife and eat pig’s feet. Tillmon Figgs played Bono as the jovial counselor and bringer of conscience for Troy. It was Bono who alluded to Troy’s half-built fence metaphor: “Some people build fences to keep people out…and some people build fences to keep people out. .”
Child actor Ava Brown made an adorable acting debut as Raynell Maxson. Ryan Willis, in his first performance at the Bowie Playhouse, was on point as the musician son of Troy, Lyons. Each of his scenes was crisp and engaging. (Due to Willis’ impending foot surgery, after opening weekend Lyons will be played by Mack Leamon, who has done an incredible job in local productions of Fly Stick and Radio Golf).
With its faux brick wall, clothesline, and ongoing fence, Daniel Lavanga’s set made 1950s Pittsburgh a reality for me — I loved it. Marge McGugan’s costume design was most impressive in the Navy uniform she put Massenburg in.
This show is a study in perseverance. Rehearsals for the show were halted at the official start of the pandemic, and it took two years to stage; the original director, Frank B. Moorman, suffered from a series of health problems. He was replaced by Nicole Mullins, who brought an immersive depth of understanding to his direction.
Mullins wrote that she hoped audiences would “understand the foundations of most black men in America today through Troy, Bono, Lyons and Cory…seeing the strength and resilience of black women in their lives through Rose and the incredible ability to turn each generation into Cory and Raynell.
It’s a demanding theater night; the first scene was 30 minutes long and the first act 90. Come to this show with respect for what these actors can do with Wilson’s material, and be not only entertained but informed about a vital slice of American life.
Duration: Approximately two hours with a 15 minute intermission.
Fences until April 24, 2022 at the Bowie Community Theater at Bowie Playhouse, 16500 White Marsh Park Drive, Bowie, MD. Tickets ($22 adults; $17 seniors and students) can be purchased in line.
COVID safety: BCT requires patrons to show photo ID and show proof of vaccination – a physical or digital copy of a vaccination card – when entering the theater. Masks are strongly encouraged for all guests. Temperature checks can be carried out at the entrance to the building. The artists are all vaccinated.
To note: There will be a Talk-Back session after the Sunday, April 10 show hosted by Dr. Sandra G. Shannon, Emeritus Professor of African-American Literature in Howard University’s Department of English. Dr. Shannon is the founder and president of the August Wilson Society.