August Wilson’s 10 Century Cycle plays are a towering, enduring dramatic achievement. With each play focusing on African-American life in a different decade of the 20th century, the late playwright’s work provides a rich, distinctive window into the lives of ordinary and oh-so-relatable people.
Two of the plays, Fences and The Piano Lesson, won Wilson the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The much-produced Fences won a best play Tony Award in 1987 and a best-revival Tony when it came back to Broadway in 2010. The actors who played its artfully crafted central roles — James Earl Jones and then Denzel Washington as Pittsburgh trash collector Troy Maxon, Mary Alice and Viola Davis as his wife, Rose — won Tonys, too.
It does not, however, take a Broadway budget or cast to make Fences connect with an audience. That’s clear from theatergoers’ responses to the new African American Performing Arts Community Theatre production of the play at Miami’s African Heritage Cultural Arts Center.
Set in 1957 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Fences flows from several autobiographical threads, some painful, others emotionally redemptive. Troy (Larry Robinson) is in his early 50s, happily married for nearly two decades to Rose (Carolyn Johnson). Their high school-age son Cory (the watchful, wary Roderick Randle) is a talented enough football player that a college recruiter will soon come calling. Drifting into the fenced-off yard of the Maxons’ tidy, spare home are Lyons (a casually slick Darryl Vaughn), Troy’s musician son from an earlier relationship; Jim Bono (a warm André L. Gainey), Troy’s coworker and longtime friend; Gabriel (the appealing Charles Bonamy), Troy’s war-damaged but joyful brother; and Raynell (Lara Storm), a sweet little girl whose arrival changes everything.
Wilson paints a portrait of Troy as a vibrant but deeply damaged man whose abuse-filled childhood and youthful mistakes have led him to a perilous code of behavior. At all costs, he provides for his family, but he demands utter, cowering obedience from his restless younger son. Troy genuinely loves the wife who sacrifices her needs to meet his, yet when he develops a romantic itch, he scratches it. He drinks and bellows, wanting to be treated as the king of his deteriorating castle, yet he himself has planted many of the emotional land mines beneath his family’s seemingly solid foundation.
Staged by Theodore “Teddy” Harrell Jr., AAPACT’s Fences competently, sometimes movingly, fits together the puzzle pieces of Wilson’s plot. However, the sound within the theater and the actors’ articulation make certain lines muddy or unclear, and in a Wilson play, every word counts.
Robinson’s powerful, physically imposing Troy achieves an easy camaraderie with Gainey’s Jim, and the actor conveys a real connection with Johnson’s Rose. He doesn’t stint on the behavior that makes an audience recoil from a complicated man. But greater clarity in his speeches would push Robinson’s performance to a higher level.
Just as Rose is the sensible rock of the Maxon family, Johnson is the artful heart of this Fences. Her Rose is attentive, nurturing and pragmatic. And when her beloved husband reveals a secret that torpedoes years of trust, Rose’s furious response is masterfully delivered by Johnson.
A masterful storyteller whose language flows like music, Wilson left a grand legacy for the artists and audiences. If AAPACT’s Fences doesn’t hit every note, it still allows its audience entry into a deeply resonant world.