Saturday, April 28, 2018

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Fences"

Disclosure: the reviewer is a member of the Board of Directors of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

Coincidence or not, how appropriate it is that The Cloverdale Playhouse opened director Georgette Norman's revelatory production of August Wilson's multi-award winning Fences on the same weekend that Montgomery is making international headlines for the Equal Justice Initiative's eye-opening promotion of serious deliberation of racism through the "Peace and Justice Summit," a "Concert for Peace and Justice," the "Legacy Museum," and the "National Monument for Peace and Justice." -- Visitors to the EJI's sites would be well-advised to add seeing Fences to their itineraries.

The sixth of ten plays in his "Pittsburgh Cycle", each one recounting aspects of the African American experience during a specific decade of the Twentieth Century, Fences, set in the 1950s, focuses on a 53-year old former Negro League baseball player, now working as a garbage man. Troy Maxson [Ronald McCall] resents the many racial injustices visited on him in the past; he is building a fence around his modest back yard [whether to secure the place as his own or to keep others out is debatable], but the figurative wall he constructs around himself that makes him feel he is in charge actually keeps everyone else at a distance. Although his wife Rose [Yvette Jones-Smedley] sticks by him, Troy's stubborn mindset alienates his youngest son Cory [Kendrick Golson].

The decades-long disappointment with a system that kept him from playing in the Major Leagues, and now struggling to provide for his family, causes Troy to "protect" his son from a similar fate when Cory has a chance at playing football by insisting he quit the team and focus on chores and responsibility. A lesson he gives to his son when the boy questions whether Troy likes him is : "Don't you try and go through life worrying about if somebody like you or not. You best be making sure they doing right by you," a lesson Troy learned the hard way, and which ultimately gets him a job as the first Black garbage-truck driver in Pittsburgh.

But Troy has other things that haunt him: stories that build his ego he tells to his friend Bono [Joe C. Colvin, Jr.] and anyone else within hearing distance; reluctantly lending money to his elder son Lyons [Naaman Jackson], whose choice of becoming a musician runs counter to Troy's ideas of more practical vocations; tough-love offered to his mentally impaired brother Gabriel [La'Brandon Tyre], the result of a war injury; occasional private confrontations with Death and his stalwart attempts to keep the Grim Reaper away; admitting to an extra-marital affair and the birth of a daughter Raynell [Brooke Bennett on opening night], and its devastating effect on his marriage with Rose.

So much of Fences hinges on an ability to acknowledge the past and accept its often cruel and uncomfortable impact, something its characters struggle with throughout. Their very human flaws, and the genetic traits inherited from generation to generation, are characteristics that make this production's actors so readily available to connect with, especially in today's environment.

The bond of friendship between Bono and Troy is unaffected, yet Mr. Colvin in the role always in Troy's shadow, can either joke with his companion, or ignore his faults, or when it comes to it, tell him straight out to save his marriage. -- As Lyons, Mr. Jackson is intimidated by Troy, yet tries to penetrate his father's stubbornness with an obstinacy of his own. -- Ms. Bennett's Raynell is the innocent new generation whose naivete allows Cory particularly to forgive his father.

Mr. Tyre draws every bit of sympathy in his depiction of the simple-minded Gabriel, an obvious symbolic creation of the Angel Gabriel: he carries a trumpet, chases the "hellhounds", and is ready at Troy's funeral to blow his horn to "tell St. Peter to open the gates" for his brother. A fine sensitive portrayal.

The interactions among Mr. McCall, Ms. Jones-Smedley, and Mr. Golson come across as the most natural and credible; they each appear comfortable in the skins of their characters, and are so convincing in their roles that we believe they are a family made up of individuals who know each other intimately. We never doubt their motives. As a good portion of acting lies in an actor's ability to listen and respond in each moment as if it is happening for the first time, these three are models of the craft. They carry us on their respective journeys, and we laugh and cry and tense up and relax and take sides as they disclose the story of Fences.

When we see Troy strut like a peacock in the comfortable sexual bantering between him and Rose, we sense the deep love they have for one another. -- When Cory tests his adolescent need for independence from the man he idolizes, we understand, and when Troy kicks Cory out of the house for disobedience and confronting him man to man, we understand both sides. -- When Troy excuses his infidelity with a cliche that his pregnant mistress gives him something different from what he has with Rose, excusing his actions by claiming he has been "standing in the same place for eighteen years", Rose is devastated; her rejoinder is "What about me?...You're not the only one with wants and needs." -- And when Rose agrees to be a mother to the innocent love-child Raynell her strength comes to the fore by stating "From right now...this child got a mother. But you a womanless man." -- Powerful stuff on all counts that these three actors' commitment to is mesmerizing.

Ms. Norman's production of such an important play as Fences at The Cloverdale Playhouse reveals so much about the world we live in today; a world with unresolved conflicts around race; a world where -- in Montgomery, at least -- the honest assessment of the past and the conversations being initiated by the EJI give some hope that we might determine a course of action to make things better.