Troy Maxson is no Willy Loman, though there are similarities between August Wilson's embittered garbage collector and Arthur Miller's despairing salesman. Both men cheat on their wives, engage in epic battles with their sons, and struggle with their mortality and the pressures of a capitalist society. But where Willy speaks in Jewish idioms without ever being identified as a member of a minority group, Troy is explicitly defined by the discrimination against him as an African-American. He can't hide who he is. Nor does he want to. Where Willy enters his Brooklyn home stooped and defeated after another fruitless road trip, Troy opens Fences by swaggering into his backyard. He's clutching a pint bottle, mocking a fellow worker for his Stepin Fetchit antics, and proclaiming himself unperturbed by an impending visit to the commissioner's office prompted by an official complaint he's made that there are no blacks driving the garbage trucks. It's 1957, in Pittsburgh's Hill district, less than two years after Rosa Parks ignited the civil rights movement.
Fences hasn't been professionally staged in Chicago since 1986, when the Goodman Theatre gave it a pre-Broadway tryout starring James Earl Jones. It's anyone's guess why, but the good news about the 20-year delay is that A.C. Smith is now old enough to play the middle-aged Troy. Court Theatre's production, beautifully directed by Ron OJ Parson, allows this longtime local actor, who's never gotten roles that fully exploit his powerful physicality and quicksilver instincts, to tear into a character with gusto, rage, and joy. Smith is well matched by the rest of the ensemble, so for anyone who loves Wilson's work--or anyone who's wondered what all the fuss is about--this show is unmissable.
The themes that Wilson would continue to illuminate (and occasionally belabor) in later works are all efficiently etched in Fences, the third play to be produced--but sixth chronologically--in his series depicting 20th-century African-American life decade by decade. As in King Hedley II, there's a patch of earth in the backyard where plants struggle to grow. As in that play, Seven Guitars, and Gem of the Ocean, there's a local mystic/head case: Troy's brother Gabriel, who carries a trumpet for calling open the gates of heaven. And like Citizen Barlow in Gem of the Ocean, Troy fled his home in the south for the industrial north and committed a crime that resulted in a man's death. Still, Wilson called Fences his "odd man out. All my other plays are ensemble pieces, but Fences has a main character with the others revolving around him."
Unlike the Willy Lomans of the world, Troy doesn't obsess about being liked. Instead he craves respect. A former Negro League baseball star, he was too old to play in the majors by the time Jackie Robinson integrated the sport. His own disappointments as an athlete fuel the primal battle with his second son, Cory, who's eager to pursue a football scholarship. Unlike Willy, who insists on his son Biff being a football star, Troy thinks Cory would be better off learning a trade than going to college and wasting time on the gridiron: "The white man ain't gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway," Troy says. When Cory asks his father, "How come you ain't never liked me?" Troy explodes with a litany of all the things he's provided for his family. "You my flesh and blood. Not 'cause I like you! Cause it's my duty to take care of you. . . . Don't you try and go through life worrying if somebody like you or not. You best be sure they doing right by you." Troy has enormous pride in his ability to support his family, an ability he says his own father lacked. But his insistence on getting his own way and his inability to feed his family emotionally create rifts, which hollow him out by the play's end. He gets his promotion to driver, only to feel lost and isolated from his friend and fellow worker, Jim Bono. He seeks solace in the arms of another woman, only to father a child his wife, Rose, must raise after his mistress dies in childbirth.
Parson's production finds its greatest power in the relationship between Smith's mesmerizingly intense, disarmingly witty Troy and Jacqueline Williams's incandescent Rose. Unlike Linda Loman, Rose won't close her eyes to her husband's transgressions. When she finally agrees to raise little Raynell, she tells him, "This child got a mother. But you a womanless man." When Troy tells her how good it felt to give up his worries and laugh with another woman, Rose calls him out in a speech loaded with painful truths: "You not the only one who's got wants and needs. But I held on to you, Troy. . . . I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn't take me no eighteen years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn't never gonna bloom."
As Cory, Anthony Fleming III is best in his early scenes, when he expresses an adolescent joy in physicality. But he's somewhat stiff in his interactions with Troy--a stiffness that feels less like Cory's fear of his father than like the uncertainty of an actor trying to hold his own against a powerhouse. John Steven Crowley's soft-spoken turn as Jim Bono is pitch-perfect, particularly when he warns Troy that his mistress could cost him Rose, the best thing in his life. Rolando A. Boyce as Lyons, Troy's aimless older son, conveys well the self-conscious hipster Wilson describes--someone "more caught up in the rituals and 'idea' of being a musician than in the actual practice of the music." Victor J. Cole communicates both Gabriel's vulnerability and his power, especially in his final shamanlike exorcism of Troy.
Though Fences has tragic undertones, it's not a tragedy. Unlike Willy Loman, Troy Maxson doesn't take his own life. He goes down swinging--during batting practice. Troy and Cory are estranged by play's end. But in the coda seven years later, Cory, now a marine, returns for his father's funeral. Though initially he doesn't want to be present for Troy's last turn center stage, he's convinced to go by the playful Raynell--who joins him in a song that their grandfather taught Troy--and by Rose, who says, "Not going to your daddy's funeral ain't gonna make you a man." Though he and his father, like Troy and his father, never reconcile, Cory carries with him the lesson of his father's life: "You have to take the crookeds with the straights."
When: Through 2/12: Wed-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 2:30 and 7:30 PM
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.