BWW Review: FENCES at Kansas City Repertory Theatre
Perhaps it is an illusion encouraged by the extreme rake of the Copaken Theatre seating area, but you imagine yourself a voyeur floating over a backyard belonging to the Maxson family of Pittsburgh Hills Pennsylvania during the late 1950s. We observe them through the lens of the late August Wilson, America's premiere African American playwright. The play is Wilson's 1983 Pulitzer Prize winning "Fences" here directed by Ron "OJ" Parson and produced by the Kansas City Repertory Theatre.
"Fences" is the compelling story of an African American family and the demons that drive them. On one level, the Maxsons struggle with the racist legacy of the 1940s and 1950s. On a more underlying level, the challenges are universal and faced by families of all ethnic groupings. The universality of the piece is what makes it great.
The father, Troy Maxson (AC Smith), has become a bitter individual. Troy is not a bad man. He is deeply loved by his long time wife, Rose (Greta Oglesby), his two sons Lyons (Chester Gregory) and Cory (Rufus Burns), his war-disabled brother Gabe (Walter Coppage), and his old friend Jim Bono (AlFrEd Wilson). Troy is a man burdened by the weight of perceived responsibilities.
Troy's behavior is informed by his past and his desire to assure his sons avoid the pain that he has suffered. Troy is a flawed individual. He comes from an abusive family of southern sharecroppers. His mother dies early and his father intimidates Troy's large group of siblings mainly for the fieldwork he can frighten out of them.
Troy is homeless before his thirteenth birthday living under a bridge and stealing for food. Troy stabs another man to death after being shot. He is sentenced to fifteen years in state penitentiary. Troy discovers a talent for baseball. Upon release in his late 20s, Troy joins the then thriving Negro baseball leagues. Troy has casual relationships. Lyons, his oldest son, is born in the mid 1920s. Troy meets and marries Rose in 1939. Cory is born soon after.
Jackie Robinson breaks the major league color barrier in 1947, but Troy is too old to engender much major league interest despite his obvious baseball talenT. Troy feels robbed. He takes a menial job as a rubbish collector to support his family. Neither of Troy's sons lives up to his vision of how to afford a better life. Lyons is a perpetually out of work musician. Cory is an athlete. He has been offered a college scholarship, but Troy fears Cory will be screwed by the white dominated professional sports establishment just as he feels he has been. Troy's dreams of a better life for his boys manifest as anger with them, arguments with Rose, and a final falling out.
Troy searches for relief and lightness in the arms of another woman who becomes unintentionally pregnant. He reveals the affair to Rose. The lover dies after giving birth to a daughter, Raynell. Troy begs Rose to take in his motherless little girl. She accepts the blameless baby, but rejects Troy now sentenced to become a refugee in his own home.
Troy is alone in the fullest sense. His sons have not succeeded to his standard. His brother his been institutionalized. Rose has rejected him with cause. Despite being promoted to driver, his dead end job makes him feel even more alone. Frustration and despair leads to his early death.
The completing scene finds the family coming together just prior to Troy's funeral. Rose is a classic matriarchal figure. Gabe has been furloughed from the institution. Raynell has grown into a well- behaved pre-teenager. Lyons still pursues a musical career. Cory is a Marine. At Rose's urging, he forgives his father enough to attend the funeral.
AC Smith as Troy is an awesome and dominating presence. We feel his anger, but understand his frustration even as we disapprove of his acting out. Greta Ogelsby as Rose matches her Troy with an intensity born out of conviction and underlying love for her family.
Kansas City Repertory Theater productions have earned a reputation for technical excellence, but Jack Magaw's exceptional setting here outdoes itself for quality and three-dimensionality. The three building stage set conjures the exact feel of big city back yards in emerging areas. I am very much put in mind of the many buildings one passes on the elevated trains of Chicago and other big cities.
"Fences" is an excellent evening of theater. That Director Parson, actors Smith and Wilson, and KC Rep all had personal connections to the playwright makes it even more special. "Fences" will continue its Kansas City run through November 5. Tickets are available at KCRep.org or by telephone at 816-235-6106.
Photo by Cory Weaver