BWW Review: FENCES at The Umbrella Stage Company
The Umbrella Stage Company has baptized their newly renovated blackbox with an appropriately bleak production of August Wilson's Fences. The play is the third installment in Wilson's American Century Cycle, for which he wrote 10 plays about the Black American experience, one play per decade in the twentieth century. Fences is arguably the most successful and most frequently produced, having secured the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play along with the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and inspiring a 2016 movie adaptation which was nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay, among others. We follow the story of Troy Maxson, a city sanitation worker whose aspirations for anything beyond driving a dump truck have abandoned him, and his family. The play relays a narrative which explores the intricacies of familial relationships in the quotidian as well as within a crucible of infidelities, deceit, and betrayal.
Jeanne McPartland Keenan's costumes and Dan Daly's scenic design encapsulate the downtrodden world in which the action exists, which, under Samuel J. Biondolilo's caressing swatches of orange and white light, take on a comforting sepia wash reminiscent of a Romare Bearden collage. The overall look parallels the style of the script, giving us a realistic view of Black American struggles through a soft filter of verse and poetry. Just as Maxson delivers monologues more likely composed by Langston Hughes than formulated in the mind of an 'everyman' character, raw and real textures of gravel, brick, linen, and aluminum take on a pastoral glow when illuminated in the soft yellow shades of a sunset. The style separates us from the hardships faced on stage and allows us to look on through romanticized lenses. Although the staging feels aimless at moments (actors seem to wander clumsily through the open space with a tether drawing them unnaturally back toward the porch), and a few feeble elements overreach for that trendy buzzword 'immersive', the design points to promising possibilities in this new performance space.
Anchoring the production, Damon Singletary holds attentions captive as the patriarchal Troy Maxson. He drops low when less of a performer may face impulses to shout, and, in effect, his ramblings about days past are riveting, clear, and resonate images throughout the space. Overall, while a delight to watch and clearly adept at delivering such emotionally driven text, he lacks the overarching sense of having given up with which Maxson is written. Talks of his faded glory as a baseball player seem emptily gloomy and inaccurate when applied to such a limber, conspicuously powerful actor. His sons are played by the confidently suave Daniel Rios, Jr. and Dwayne P. Mitchell, whose ivy-league charm and natural charisma far and beyond make up for the disdain earned in the agonizingly awkward scenes in which we must watch him saw through scraps of wood.
Shani Farrell is a perfectly unrefined Rose, Maxson's partner. Her raspy crooning of spirituals is just as gentle as her earth-bound statements of power are rough. Unfortunately, she represents a sad phenomena as she admonishes Troy in moments of tension; the (mostly white) audience perceives of her criticisms of her husband as jokes at which they should laugh or snap in approval. This is no fault of Farrell's, but seems to dually be rooted in misogyny and our culture's reduction of black women to sassy sidekicks and reaction GIFs. It is difficult to watch a woman perform a drama with guile and be received as though she was a cast member of Bad Girls Club.
On the subject of the audience; having worked in Concord, I know that, while it is an affluent community, it is not nearly as homogenous as the crowd seated in the theatre would make it seem. Director, Michelle Aguillon, notes in the program that this show might help audiences "understand better how the other half lives", seemingly acknowledging a majority of patrons who share little in common with the Maxson family. In this season, Fences marks the only show The Umbrella Stage Company is set to produce written by an artist of color, directed by an artist of color, or starring a cast of all actors of color. Because of its framing (Fences is programmed dead in the middle of two commercially successful, family-friendly musicals), one cannot help but feel this piece has been selected as a diagnostically required race play. This in mind, one wonders what the company is trying to say with this piece, and unfortunately, there does not seem to be much productive being said around this production.
The works of August Wilson and Lynn Nottage have taken the reins from Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. While notable and groundbreaking plays, many of them are frequently slammed into majority white seasons at American theatres because of a common thread that ties many of them together; namely, that they are written in a way that allows white audiences to consume them incredibly comfortably. The audience at The Umbrella was so comfortable, in fact, that one elderly patron put their feet up on the eponymous fence which Troy Maxson builds to keep his troubles out (unpack that blatant symbolism, Tennessee Williams!). As we sit watching the Maxson family struggle with the realities of poverty, discrimination, incarceration, war, and abandonment, we are never confronted by the ways our whiteness benefits from and stands upon the backs of their suffering. Not every play needs to make its audience feel radically uncomfortable, but I question what the impetus behind producing Fences for a majority white audience in 2019 is. Sadly, the play landed too much in this venue like the poverty-porn parodied in George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum or Tracy Jordan's fictitious Oscar-vehicle, Hard to Watch on 30 Rock. A (mostly white) audience was allowed to leave the space having felt the catharsis that comes from seeing human suffering replicated, but without any productive place to put that energy.
This experience does not exist in a vacuum. It coincides with the extensive cosmetic overhaul the community space has recently undergone, and with the rebranding of The Umbrella from a "community theatre" to a "professional theatre" (a distinction which presents more of a blurred-line than the company seems to acknowledge). While offering productions with increased budgets and more equitable employment for actors is wonderful, an increase in funding does not constitute professionalism. As Fences proved, there are certain jobs that shouldn't be overlooked on a production team (wrinkled costumes screamed for a wardrobe supervisor, and two anti-climactic sequences served as a reminder of the necessity of violence designers), for instance. A young company has time to grow and develop, but it seems that a fundamental attention paid toward their community might do more for The Umbrella than a state of the art facility at this juncture. What pieces could be presented to help diversify their audiences? What pieces might lead their current audiences through difficult, but necessary discussions? It would be wonderful to hear these questions asked by a company as it finds its new identity within the professional Greater Boston theatre scene.
Overall, Fences is an excellent production with a stellar ensemble cast. Not to be missed by any fans of great American drama.