It’s not about the magnificent scene – in Lloyd Bridges 1987 Broadway production at New York’s 46th Street Theatre – where James Earl Jones delivers one of the most memorable versions of the irascible tragic hero Troy Maxson; nor should we weigh and measure (to tip the scales in a more favorable direction) the guttural performances by noted actors Courtney B. Vance or Viola Davis or Denzel Washington. Director Lynch R. Travis has taken us to a higher plain with Wayne State University’s Bonstelle Theatre production of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning drama “Fences.”
“Fences” is a story of a broken trash collector who struggles for a better way of life for his family in dubious backdrop of 1950s Chicago. Troy Maxson, a trash collector, once a promising baseball player in the Negro Leagues, deals with a stubborn son who wants to play football. Troy builds a fence which metaphorically protects and shield his son from the harshness of racial politics and Jim Crow hatred, while wrestling with the immutable boundaries Troy has erected between his unyielding choices and those of his wife and son.
Will Bryson (Troy Maxson), Kayla Mundy (Rose), Donnevan Tolbert (Cory) and Dante Jones (Bono) have brought remarkably
fresh performances to August Wilson’s magnificent play. And it is interesting to note that Wayne State University has honored Wilson’s request that no white person ever direct his works since, he believed, no white person can ever truly understand his black characters. Since Wilson’s death in 2005, several white directors have staged his work, beginning with the famed Tony Award-winning Bartlett Sher. Sher’s selection drew considerable outraged from the black community, many believing that Wilson’s request had been dishonored, and that such decisions reduced critical opportunities for black directors to work on Broadway.
Nonetheless, Wilson’s play continues to resonate because of Wilson’s richly textured characters and the play’s timeless scenarios within a black family’s struggle for decency and honor and trust amidst betrayal and infidelity and dishonor. Some critics have suggested similarities between Fences and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Yet, Wilson has noted Amiri Baraka as his greatest literary influence. In a 2004 interview with The Believer Wilson said:
I’m not sure what they say about Fences as it relates to Death of a Salesman. At the time I wrote Fences, I had not read Death of a Salesman, had not seen Death of a Salesman, did not know anything about Death of a Salesman. My greatest influence has been the blues. And that’s a literary influence, because I think the blues is the best literature that we as black Americans have. My interest in Baraka comes from the sixties and the Black Power movement. So it’s more for Baraka’s political ideas, which I loved and still am an exponent of. Through all those years I was a follower, if you will, of Baraka. He had an influence on my thinking.
As well, critics have accused Wilson’s portrayal of black women in negative tones. Essayist Sandra Shannon said Wilson’s “feminine portrayals tend to slip into comfort zones of what seem to be male-fantasized roles.” Feminist critic bell hooks said Wilson’s play doesn’t critique patriarchy, and “sexist values are re-inscribed.” Of the similar critiques of his play, Wilson said “I don’t agree with that. You gotta write women like… they can’t express ideas and attitudes that women of the feminist movement in the sixties made. Even though I’m aware of all that, you gotta be very careful if you’re trying to create a character like that, that they don’t come up with any greater understanding of themselves and their relationship to the world than women had at that time.
Bonstelle Theatre’s brilliant production is well worth the time and money. “Fences” runs through February 22, 2015. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 – $20. The Bonstelle is located at 4743 Cass Avenue on Woodward Avenue in Detroit.