BWW Interview: Ron 'OJ' Parson And AC Smith of FENCES at Kansas City Repertory Theatre
Next up at Kansas City Repertory Theatre is a new production of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winning 1983 play "Fences" at the KC Rep Copaken Theatre in downtown Kansas City with an exceptional cast. Directing "Fences" is Ron OJ Parson Director/Resident Artist at Court Theatre of Chicago. AC Smith plays Troy Maxson supported by Alfred Wilson as Troy's best friend and co-worker, Jim Bono.
August Wilson was one of the most prestigious American Playwrights of the 20th century. He died in 2005 of cancer at age 60 and was buried in his native Pittsburgh. He will be most distinctively remembered for his Century Cycle of ten plays that document the African-American experience. Each play takes place in a different decade of the 20th century mostly in Wilson's childhood home of Pittsburgh Hills. "Fences" is probably the most widely known of the cycle. "Fences" is set in 1957.
Broadway World is glad to have had the opportunity of speaking with Director Ron "OJ" Parson and lead actor AC Smith about "Fences" the play and about the new production now taking shape in Kansas City. Director Parson has helmed twenty-four August Wilson plays including a highly regarded 2005-2006 production of "Fences" starring AC Smith as Troy Maxson.
Director Parson and Actor Smith are long time collaborators and friends. They know each other so well, sometimes it seems like they finish each other's sentences.
Based on nine reviews including the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun Times, the 2005-2006 "Fences" was judged four stars - highly recommended.
"With Director Parson's whip-smart textual attention, the first string actors hit as many homers as Troy Maxxson... claims he once did." Time Out - Chicago. "AC Smith throws himself at Troy like a man so... consumed... he has little time for pronouncements. It is a searing piece of acting." Chicago Tribune.
What makes this new version so compelling is that Ron Parson, AC Smith, and Alfred Wilson were all personally well acquainted with the playwright who passed away during rehearsals for their 2005-2006 production. He died unexpectedly and had been expected to attend.
Broadway World: For those who have never seen "Fences," please briefly sum up the story.
Ron Parson: Basically, it is a play about a family. I always call everything I do a love story. It is about the love for family, for culture, for all the things that a family is about. But the crux of the story is about a father and a son.
The father (Troy Maxson) is a former Negro League baseball player. He lived during the period of transition. Jackie Robinson (had just joined the Brooklyn Dodgers). Troy was too old to play by 1948. He didn't get the opportunity.
AC Smith: The chance...
Ron Parson: Yes, he didn't get the chance to go to the next level like a lot of the guys did... like Satchel Paige went on and he was already old. But Satchel was sooo good that it didn't matter (how old he was). In the play... August takes that dynamic and makes the lead character, Troy, very bitter.
Troy's youngest son, Cory, has an offer of a scholarship to play college football, but Troy is so bitter (about his own professional sports experience), he puts a "Fence" up against his son.
AC Smith: Troy is protecting Cory from what he went through , but that can be mistaken for something else. Jealousy... Envy... There are a lot of ways to look at why Troy is doing this thing to Cory.
Parson: And Troy has another son (Lyons) by a previous relationship who spent some time in jail. Lyons has gone off on his own and the father's relationship with him is also sort of strained. There is kind of a "Fence" there too... lot of "Fences."
AC Smith: then going back to Troy's father. There were "Fences" there too. It comes out in the play about why Troy is the way he is. And between Troy and his wife Rose... there is another "Fence." There is "Fences" all over this place.
Ron Parson: So basically this is a play about "Fences."
Broadway World: Are there any gates in all these "Fences?" An overriding theme?
Ron Parson: (Laugh) This is a play about dreams... love.... racism. There are so many issues that come into the play it is hard to pinpoint only one theme. I usually don't even like to get real specific to tell someone what a play is about because I want them to figure it out.
I like to use this analogy about going to an art museum to see a painting. You go to see a painting and if ten people are looking at the painting, then each one is going to see something different in it. For me that is what theater should do. Everyone should get something a little bit different.
AC Smith: And although the play is about all the things we talked about. The characters are all discovering the story for the very first time. Like deception or infidelity, at first they don't know what that is. It is just now developing in their lives and it comes out that that is what that was. Troy is just going through his life and he doesn't realize what he is really doing. He just does what feels good to him and he thinks is right.
Broadway World: Both of you knew the playwright, August Wilson, right?
Ron Parson: I first met August (Wilson) when I was at Yale visiting some friends. I directed some of his plays, then I got to understudy for "Jitney" in Chicago and he was around so we got to talk. I was not as close to him as some people, but to sit with him and get to know him was special and I know he saw some of my plays.
Broadway World: What kind of a guy was August Wilson?
AC Smith: He was kind of quiet.
Ron Parson: He was very thoughtful. Conversations you had with August were kind of intense. He was kind of serious.
AC Smith: You never saw him josh or jive around.
Ron Parson: Alfred Wilson, who is also in this production, worked at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. Alfred introduced me to August for a second time. He didn't remember our previous meeting back at Yale.
AC Smith: Which is what I wanted to say... August never called you by name, but the way he looked at you was calling you by name. He knowed you. He knowed your face, but he didn't remember names.
Ron Parson: But at the Goodman Theater in Chicago, Alfred and I got to hang with him a little bit. He was writing "Gem of the Ocean." He would tell us about that and about "Seven Guitars" which was being performed at that time.
AC Smith: Were we in rehearsals for "Fences" when he died?
Ron Parson: I think so. I went to August's funeral and it was a mind blowing experience. The funeral was in Pittsburgh. He was supposed to come to that (2006 Fences) production. I had written him and told him about his influence on my career.
He had seen the "Piano Lesson." And he had recommended me to direct it somewhere, but I was already committed at the time to a small part in a Broadway production of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" with Gary Sinise. I sometimes regret that decision to stay with the Broadway cast.
Director Ron Parson and actor AC Smith pose in front of the KC Rep poster for Fences. Photo by Al Portner