Lou Bellamy, director of Portland Playhouse‘s current production Fences, accurately describes August Wilson‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning play as “the ‘thunder’ that is Fences”. And thunder it is, from the moment Troy Maxson (Lester Purry) and his friend Jim Bono (Bryant Bentley) walk onto the stage in the first act, the audience knows a storm is brewing.
It is a Friday afternoon, payday, 1957 USA. Troy has money in his pocket, a pint of gin, and his best buddy. As the men drink and joke in the front yard, it’s obvious Troy has a chip on his shoulder. He aspires to be a truck driver for the garbage hauling company that employs him and Bono; however, so far only white men drive while people like Troy and Bono do the heavy lifting. Troy is not a young man. He has complained to management, and fears he may lose his job as a result.
More issues bubble to the surface and we learn that Troy’s brother Gabriel (Bobby Bermea), a World War II casualty, is mentally impaired because of his war injury; the family has money issues; his older son Lyons (Seth Rue) comes by to borrow money; his younger son Cory (La’ Tevin Alexander) is a disappointment; and his wife Rose (Erika LaVonn)…let’s just say they’ve been married for a while.
And then there is baseball. With August Wilson there always is baseball. Troy played in the Negro American League, but greater success eluded him. He is a man who struggles daily in a system where the deck is loaded against him. While he has hacked out a middle class existence, it’s middle class for the Black family rather than for the post-war boom of the majority White society he sees around him. In Troy’s world, fear is the dominant emotion and demons await him at every turn, accentuating every flaw and suppressing much of his inherent goodness. Purry’s performance is extraordinary–volatile, funny, angry, and hurt. Erika LaVonn as Rose, Troy’s wronged wife, gives the performance of a lifetime.
Fences is a masterpiece of American theatre. The play is incomparable in its dissection of the milieu Wilson grew up in, observed, and brought to life for all of us. It is part of the larger body of Wilson’s work known as The Pittsburgh Cycle, or the Century Cycle–and is the seventh of ten plays, each depicting a decade in the lives and issues surrounding the residents of Pittsburgh’s Hill District. It is the history of who we are as a country.
Every performer in Fences shines. Director Bellamy, who is founding artistic director of Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, Minnesota, enjoyed a long professional relationship and friendship with August Wilson until the playwright’s death in 2005. Says Bellamy, who also has played a number of Wilson’s characters including Troy, “My professional aesthetic, my relationship with and interpretation of history, and the manner in which I present African American comportment and culture on stage is shaped by his work.”
Penumbra produced Wilson’s first professional play, Black Bart and the Sacred Hills in 1982, and since that time has produced more of Wilson’s work than any theater in the world. Joining Bellamy from Penumbra are Purry and LaVonn. Fences runs through June 10.