A review of August Wilson’s Fences, on stage at the International City Theatre in Long Beach.
Although the timing is coincidental, it seems entirely appropriate that the ICT should stage August Wilson’s Fences while the Black Lives Matter movement coalesces and generates momentum. Where the political system, supported by a domesticated media, has failed to build a politics of inclusion, it falls to the arts to wage a campaign for hearts and minds, however arguably quixotic.
Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, the sixth piece in Wilson’s 10-play cycle exploring black experiences in the 20th century gives voice to a generation in transition from the segregation of post-slavery America to the fragile achievement of legal equality, if not social parity. Although the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1957 doesn’t directly figure into the scenario, Wilson nevertheless packs in a number of influences that resonate even today, from racially-biased policing and the white condescension of employers, to the way society cares for its war veterans and its marginalized. Baseball serves as the dominant analogy, with the play’s fulcrum, Troy Maxson (Michael A. Shepperd), embittered by the racism that kept talented players like him either in separate leagues or on the bench – that is, in a place where dreams get chloroformed.
The identity politics surrounding the tribulations of Troy and his family is only part of a rich scenario that touches on fatherhood, relationships, sexuality, gender roles, class, death, the individual need for authenticity, and the ways in which one generation gives way to another. While Troy is eventually undone by his personal decisions as a father and husband – a fall whose effects reverberate painfully around him – those decisions nevertheless occur in a charged context. Sharply directed by Gregg T. Daniel and superbly acted on Don Llewellyn’s beautiful house set by one of the most talented casts assembled by the ICT in recent memory, Fences resists the tendency to reduce its drama to a neat interpretation, delivering instead an emotionally and conceptually nuanced domestic portrait. It’s normally a pet peeve of mine when playwrights change the tonal quality of a play from one act to another, but Wilson is such a strong dramatist that the shift from a jovial but edgy tone to anguished pathos feels natural. Here is immersive theatre and eloquent human drama; a must-see production by the ever-reliable International City Theatre.
The challenge remains to bring plays like Fences to those who would benefit from enlarging their worldview, rather than playing to audiences with established sympathies. It’s an effort that takes on particular importance given the need to confront both the right-wing demagoguery that fosters resentment against the “other” and the left-wing’s lethargy. However much one might listen to the recreational nihilist who suggests that capital-A Art rates alongside capital-R Religion as one of those historically unproductive necessities, of course we must push on with romantic and revolutionary conviction. In this spirit, what good theatre always aspires to, Fences is an inspired and strongly realized addition to the ICT’s season.
Fences, by August Wilson. Direct by Gregg T. Daniel. On stage at the International City Theatre in Long Beach until September 13, 2015. For information and tickets, visit ictlongbeach.org or call the box office at (562) 436-4610.
Frédérik Sisa is the Page’s Assistant Editor and Resident Art Critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.