Thursday, June 24, 2010

Intermission Talk

Intermission Talk June 29, 2010

Look Behind "Fences"

With Lloyd Richards

by Tony Vellela

"The misconception about this character is the one you feel when you're walking down the street, alone, in the middle of the night, and see a figure coming toward you, who turns out to be a black person, a black man. That moment, and the next few moments, are what it's about." The speaker is the late director Lloyd Richards. The character is Troy Maxson, from August Wilson's "Fences."

I spent several afternoons talking with Lloyd during the years before he passed away on June 29, 2006, his 87th birthday. And now that the current revival of this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama has officially won a fistful of Tony Awards, giving it the added boost to its marquee star power in having Denzel Washington play and garner a Tony Award as Troy, Lloyd's observations recall some of the initial views he held, as its premier director in 1988.

"This play takes place in 1957, in Pittsburgh's Hill District. I did not know it existed until I worked on this play," he told me, and since I'd also visited the Hill, we shared memories of the small wood frame houses with front porches and back yards, dirt alleys and Mom and Pop stores that still define the neighborhood. "Troy's major wish for his life was to play in the big leagues of baseball, but he never made it. He believes that racism is the reason. His wife points out that, because he was forty when he tried out, he was too old. Probably some of both. He did play in the Negro leagues, but was never invited to the national leagues. He could never understand why Jackie Robinson was selected and he wasn't. It enraged him. And, he had been in jail. Who wasn't? No major offense. He didn't kill anybody. But he did his time."

The luminous Viola Davis plays Troy's wife Rose, another Tony winner for this role. "Rose saw in Troy - possibility - a possibility for being an extraordinary person in terms of what he had to contribute to life." She sees more than the man who walks behind a garbage truck every working day. "She is the most precious thing he has ever had. He's had a lot of women, but she was different, very different. She stood out from the women who hung out after the baseball games who had a good dinner waiting for you if only you went home with them. Rose was special because she gave of herself in a special way."

His best friend and co-worker Bono, played by the remarkable Stephen McKinley Henderson, unjustly bypassed by the Tony Awards judges, met Troy in prison, and sees the humor behind Troy's often aggressive, gruff demeanor. He protects, in some way, Troy when he steps over the line or even disciplines him. Bono, like Rose, values Troy as a story-teller. That's what happens to people who don't read that much, who don't have library access. Maybe they never went to school, were never taught to read, never took the time. So they learned to read the things that were important - 'Checks Cashed' - like that. You learn what a red light is, what a green light is, and that that sign says 'Welcome,' but it doesn't mean it."

Richards first burst onto the national theatrical scene in 1959, when he became the first African-American director to helm a Broadway play, Lorraine Hansberry's classic "A Raisin in the Sun." He went on to work with Wilson several times, starting when the young poet was accepted at the Yale School of Drama, where Richards was Executive Director. The two men became friends as well as collaborators. He considered the character of Troy, first played by James Earl Jones, one of the most interesting and complex he ever encountered. "Troy contained a great deal of rage, as do many black people who grew up under the imposition of the rules of segregation." In "Fences," Troy questions the city's policy of having only black men on the street crew and only white men as drivers. And despite all his short-comings [reading challenged, no driver's license], he becomes the first black driver on the sanitation patrols.

"Fences" follows the lives of a few people in Troy's orbit, as he marauds through their needs and gifts, lifting them up and trampling them at will. "Troy is a man with tremendous physical stature," Richards continued. "What he did with that physical stature, a large person like that can be, has a potential for violence, and you can sense it and see it in them. But they also have that potential for extraordinary violence. His large hands were used in ways that could make someone feel very good when they were touched by Troy. That strength attracted, excited or frightened people. This was a man who unsuccessfully deals with barriers, with fences. They were meant to keep him out, and they were successful." As Troy tries to finish building his own real fence at the back of his yard, and as his son pulls away from helping him, his attitude toward obstacles contrasts markedly with that of Rose. At the start of scene two, she is dutifully hanging clothes from the line, and sings to herself "Jesus, be a fence around me every day."

The core of this tale lies in a corroded father-son relationship, as Troy tries to dissuade his teen-aged son from becoming caught up in the chance to attend college on a football scholarship. Even when one is offered, the parent refuses to sign the consent forms that would free the child to craft his own future. "Troy was not exposed to a father. Troy loves his son, but love has many ways of manifesting itself. He was never trained to have a son. He is not a father who can say to a son, 'I love you.' The training he has is that he will bounce him around, give him a whack, and let him fend for himself."

Richards recalled this directing experience with great joy, especially the Sunday afternoon audiences. "That's when so many black people go to the theatre. They couldn't go during the week, because they had to get up early in the morning. So they are usually coming from church. Jimmy [James Earl Jones] was very upset when some audience members erupted when Troy came into the back yard holding the baby his mistress Alberta had. One man jumped up and said 'That's me! That's me!' But there were Rose lovers, who were in support of her, enduring all she did to keep her marriage and family together. And there were Alberta lovers, rooting for this woman who did not have a husband, had an out-of-wedlock child, and died in the process. Overall, it made people feel that they were part of the culture that they were seeing in the play."

Details, specific moments, well-timed beats, deep understanding of each character's emotional and physical life, plus an original jazz/blues score by Branford Marsalis, all combine to make this current production sublimely memorable. [Note the rusted window screens on the bedroom windows.] Director Kenny Leon has carried on the glory of Lloyd Richards' landmark production, and one can only hope that some entity such as HBO takes the star power, the awards creds and the long-overdue timing to turn this production into the great film it can be.

On Book

One of America's greatest playwrights, August Wilson the writer and the man, can be explored in two fascinating books. Mary L. Bogumil's "Understanding August Wilson" digs deep into five of his legendary ten-play cycle, and she includes "Fences" in that line-up. In "I Ain't Sorry For Nothin' I Done - August Wilson's Process of Playwriting," Joan Herrington digs into how he created many of his striking, historic works. And before or after you get yourself up/down/over to the Cort Theatre, read this play. The language sings itself into your brain. It's not a very happy song, overall, but it's a hit.

Now - the Summer. Why not select a few reading list titles that take place when the livin' is easy? What, you say?

Well, yeah, 'Porgy and Bess,' to be sure. And while we're in the South, spend some quality time with Tennessee Williams. Both "Summer and Smoke" and "Suddenly, Last Summer" will serve up a fair share of chills to cool you down. Even his "Spring Storm" will take your mind off the humidity.

The temperatures rise as political wills clash in Lanford Wilson's skillful "Fifth of July." And for the mother lode of personal clashes, there's nothing more red hot than Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County." You could spend that whole month chewing over this one.

A small town in Kansas in the early '50s can be quite a steamy place. As summer gets ready to bow out, the annual Labor Day "Picnic" that William Inge created provides the catalyst for that steam to burst through the surface and scald everyone in its proximity. Years later, Inge rewrote his play, calling it "Summer Brave." He chose the new title from a line in a Shakespeare poem, "Age like winter weather; Youth like summer brave." If you read both versions, you can see that # 2 ratchets up the humor, but retains the pathos, heartbreak and lust that made "Picnic" the classic it is.

And speaking of the Bard, take a merry romp once again into the comfortably languid, shamelessly ingenuous "Midsummer Night's Dream." Allow yourself to laugh out loud.


TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series "Character Studies" about great contemporary theatre classics. He haw written several plays and musicals, including is political drama "Admissions," published by Playscripts, which was awarded Best Play at the New York International Fringe Festival. He has covered theatre for many years, for dozens of major publications. He teaches at the legendary HB Studio in the Village, and also conducts coaching sessions.


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