By ROBERT HAGELSTEIN
Blogger at lacunaemusing.blogspot.com
March 24, 2019
Palm Beach Dramaworks is staging another great American play, “Fences,” which opens March 29 and runs through April 21. It’s by one of our country’s foremost playwrights, the late August Wilson. The Broadway premiere in 1987 won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play.
Although the film starring, produced and directed by Denzel Washington may have made “Fences” Wilson’s most recognized play, it is but one in a remarkable cycle of plays chronicling black America during each decade of the twentieth century, known as his Pittsburgh Cycle.
“Fences” speaks to the corruption of the American Dream, complicated by racial issues. Metaphorical fences exist to keep several thematic forces at bay, while a physical one slowly rises on stage.
Troy Maxson was a talented baseball player in the Negro Leagues when Major League Baseball was still segregated. Now, it’s 1957 and he’s a trash collector in Pittsburgh, living with his wife Rose, their son Cory and his psychologically damaged brother Gabriel. Troy is a man of dignity, with a strong work ethic and convictions, but he is also angry and his actions have devastating consequences for his family.
Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Producing Artistic Director William Hayes, also the production’s director, says he is looking for more compassion for the protagonist.
“After all, everything is about his survival and there are those parts of the story that emphasize his vulnerabilities,” says Hayes. “Although the play is about the black experience, essentially it’s a play about family, the universal human story, and fathers’ and sons’ relationships. Particularly at this time, it’s important to see that we have more in common than differences.”
Hayes relied on Dramaworks’ reputation as a leading regional theatre to attract the best actors for this celebrated play.
“Karen Stephens was always on my mind as the ideal person to play Rose, as well as Jovan Jacobs to play Cory and John Archie to play Bono,” says Hayes. “I tracked down Lester Purry in Los Angles and after long intense discussions, we seeing eye to eye on the approach, we signed him on as the lead.”
Other major actors, including Bryant Bentley as Gabriel and Warren Jackson as Lyons, came on board after the audition process.
Purry, playing one of the great leads in American theatre, says he is a big fan of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle.
“Early in my career, when I first saw Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” I was thunderstruck,” he says. “I had never seen such a portrayal of black life without the common stereotypes. From then on, Wilson’s plays became an addiction. I’ve played in many of his ‘Pittsburgh Cycles,’ and I’ve never looked back.
Purry admits to the demands of the role, however.
“I find Troy’s soliloquies particularly moving and challenging to deliver as an actor,” he adds. “Most soliloquies you get to wax eloquently, but Wilson’s are like a drum in this play and just when you’re ready to take a brief pause or rest, there is more. It is physically and emotionally demanding, but that’s one of things that make the part so exhilarating.
“I’m so excited to be doing the role again, and as I’m with actors who are new to me, it changes the dynamics and the nuances. I love Troy’s line, one that gets to one of the central themes … ‘There ought not never have been no time too early.’ While Troy speaks that in reference to his younger days as a baseball player, it is applicable to many moments in his life.”
That pattern of speech is typical of the play and, in fact, the playful banter between Troy and his friend Bono uses the N-word, but it is affectionate, while sometimes the word is used between Troy and his sons disparagingly.
As Purry said, “Wilson’s language is poetic, Shakespearean in many ways.”
“Fences” runs March 29 through April 21. Palm Beach Dramaworks is at 201 Clematis St. in downtown West Palm Beach. For tickets, call the box office at (561) 514-4020 or go online to palmbeachdramaworks.org.
Pictured above: Karen Stephens, as Rose Maxson, and Lester Purry, as Troy Maxson, star in August Wilson’s “Fences,” the 1987 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. The production runs March 29 to April 21 at Palm Beach Dramaworks in downtown West Palm Beach. Photo by Tim Stepien