backstage (2007-05)

Over the Fence

The Clarence Brown Theatre Company's production of August Wilson's Fences

by George Logan

Fences , the Pulitzer-winning play by August Wilson, has a specific setting, in desegregating but still prejudiced Pittsburgh of 1957. It's about something we all do too much of, especially as we get older.

Troy Maxson is a garbageman. But no garbageman is just a garbageman. Troy is also a husband and father; the most successful wage-earner in his neighborhood; a former baseball player, a homerun champ in the old Negro leagues; and, as we learn, he's also an ex-con who claims to wrestle with devils and death. More of his secrets emerge as the play develops.

Regardless of what he's accomplished in his life, he's always wanted to do more. In 1957 Pittsburgh, everything's changing, both too slow and too fast for Troy. Always between a belly laugh and a showdown, Troy wheezes and huffs, charging around the stage like a wild boar that his well-meaning but perhaps naïve family is trying to domesticate.

The professional cast, though small, forms a spectrum of street characters. Jim Bono is the shy, easygoing guy in the cocked Sammy Davis hat, always ready to share a joke or a bottle. Gabe is the local crazy who wanders the neighborhood battling invisible "hellhounds"; he wears a trumpet around his neck so, when the time comes, he can be ready to signal Judgment Day. Lyons is the dandy, the slick-haired, slick-tongued jazzman who's always short a 10.

Troy, who's closely related to two of them, can deal with each on his own terms. He has a much harder time with his teenage son Cory, a high-school football player who has drawn interest from college scouts.

But Troy, either jealous or fatalistic, or both, obstructs his son's successes. As an irony, it's painfully complex. Troy's life lesson, pounded into him through his 53 hard years, is that a black man, no matter how talented, can't make it in America. He doesn't like the status quo--he's trying hard to be a garbage-truck driver, rather than a mere hauler (never mind that he doesn't have a driver's license); but it's been his reality for 53 years. He has learned to accept his failures within the straight lines of segregation's ballpark. But the rules are changing when he's too old to take advantage of them, and he seems to resent the success of other black athletes--even when one of them is his own son.

Troy claims he can take on even death, if it's a fair fight. "Death ain't nothing but a fastball on the outside corner," he says. He figures he can hit it out of the park. His overbearing egocentrism is softened by the refreshingly reasonable presence of his wife, Rose. Played by UT faculty member Tracey Copeland Halter, Rose is Mom to more than just her one biological child, sustaining an extended urban family of damaged souls.

Horace E. Smith III, who plays the unctuous Lyons, has been on Knoxville stages before, here at Clarence Brown Theatre in Big River , and in Carpetbag's Red Summer , among others. But the rest of the cast is mostly visiting pros who are new to this stage. The guy who plays Gabe is Erik Kilpatrick, whom fans of the old TV show, The White Shadow , will recognize; he has since played character parts in other series like NYPD Blue and the movie New Jack City . (He's good; if I didn't read his bio in the program, I would have been half-convinced that the reason Gabe looked familiar was that he was the same loony guy who asked me for a quarter on Gay Street earlier in the day.)

Both father and son are played by award-winning Chicago-based actors. Troy is stormy, husky, brawling A.C. Smith. As the frustrated middle-aged husband, he's Jackie Gleason on steroids. Troy could beat Ralph Cramden's ass.

Cory is nimble Warren Jackson, who conveys his character's pain with his eyes.

Playwright Wilson specializes in uncomfortable truths. Troy is at work, albeit slowly, on a literal hardwood plank fence around his yard; occasionally he persuades Cory to join him. But unlike Cory, he's also building fences in his mind, making the world more comprehensible by shutting much of it out. We all do it, working more assiduously at the job in middle age.

The only thing about this play that doesn't ring quite true, a minor thing but hard to ignore, is that Warren Jackson's diminutive size makes his credibility as a football star--and his relationship to the twice-as-large Smith--seem dubious, especially when characters say the boy reminds them of the father. The audience can't see that, but can feel his profound disappointment in his father's actions. His only obvious inheritance from his father is his frustration.

A final cast member appears only in the final scene; she's Knoxville-based actress Troidasia Kyle, who is a second-grader at Beaumont and, for just a moment, she steals the show.

Fences is an important contemporary play, well produced by a talented cast, funny but also emotionally jarring, and, at least at one point at the end, chilling. The gritty urban set, which is exceptionally cool, deserves a final word. The old brick slum where the Maxsons live looks so real you expect that when the play's over, they'll haul it downtown, plant it on some parking lot, and David Dewhirst will renovate it for condos.

What: August Wilson's Fences