Inside the shabby backyard of the Maxson home, there is important work to do — finish building the fence. “Some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in,” Bono says.
In the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Fences, Branford Marsalis’ rhapsodic music sets the tone for the story that unfolds and the people whose lives are explored. As with all of Wilson’s works, music plays an integral role in his storytelling. And so does language. In this Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play, the use of language is both powerful and memorable.
Fences, scheduled for a limited engagement at New York City’s Cort Theatre until July 11, brings forth the story of Troy Maxson, a one-time robber and former star in the Negro Leagues who is now a garbage collector. It’s 1957 and Troy is still bitter about his not making it to the major leagues. He shares his disappointment and resentment with his wife, Rose; his sons, Lyons and Cory; and his best friend, Bono. “There ought not never have been no time called too early! . . . Come telling me I come along too early,” Troy says.
Troy’s family can count on him to express his deeply felt emotions as well as his surface thoughts with passionate frankness and sly humor — whether it’s about being Black in America, facing death, the duties of fatherhood, or playing numbers. He seems particularly uneasy with society as it is changing around him. But what of his aches? His family’s aches?
Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington last appeared on Broadway in 2005 in Julius Caesar. In Fences, he takes up the role that James Earl Jones originated when the play premiered on Broadway 23 years ago. In his riveting and visceral portrayal of Troy, Washington, like Jones, captures a complex man wrestling with his past yet fearlessly facing the days ahead with intensity and guarded pain. He stirs the audience when he says, “What law say I got to like you?” to Cory and “That’s all I got to give” to Rose.
Viola Davis, who won a Tony Award for her performance in Wilson’s King Hedley II and a Drama Desk Award for her role in Lynn Nottage’s play Intimate Apparel — which also starred Russell Hornsby, again a costar with her in this production — delivers a compelling performance as Troy’s faithful and long-suffering wife who slowly reveals the inner-strength on which she has always relied. Stephen McKinley Henderson has appeared in several of Wilson’s plays, and here he is in top form as the lovable Jim Bono.
While the play’s story line comments on racism and reveals the emotional burden that surfaces when expectations come up short, it is most dramatic in its reflection of Black male relationships: husband and wife; fathers and sons; mother and sons; brothers and brothers.
Director Kenny Leon had worked with Wilson on his last two Broadway shows; for this, he said it was essential to have a team of strong actors. “Wilson was one of the great American writers of the past fifty years.
There is deep musicality and poetry in August’s writing,” Leon says. “And we needed actors who would own the roles, who could respect August’s words, let his words sing and deliver the poetry that comes from his writing.”
This exhilarating production of Fences showcases a cast of finely tuned actors; everyone in the ensemble shines. But what Fences really showcases is the absolute brilliance of August Wilson, who died at the age of 60.
The manner in which the playwright created exacting characterizations and merged comedic moments, emotional storytelling, folklore and sharp dialogue to reveal sensibilities, strengths and failings, and ideas of how people confront personal struggles and hold tightly to earnest convictions is a testament to his genius.