Wilson’s masterpiece brought to life
By Jim Reiter
Bowie Community Theatre’s Fences is like a phoenix rising from the ashes of COVID. In March 2020, after lines had been memorized, months of rehearsals completed, the set built, and costumes, sound and lights had been planned and practiced, then-director Frank Moorman and his cast and crew were all set to open on a Friday night. However, on that Thursday, the walls came tumbling down because of the pandemic. BCT, like theaters everywhere, had to shut down.
Two years later, the production finally got an audience, opening last Friday at the Bowie Playhouse for a four-week run with the original cast and a new director, Nicole Mullins, after Moorman was unable to return.
It was worth the wait. Fences is the sixth of ten plays that comprise playwright August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, each of which reflect African American life in a different decade. In 1987 Fences won both the Pulitzer Prize for drama and a Tony Award for Best Play.
Fences is set in 1957 Pittsburgh and centers on Troy Maxson, a garbage man and former Negro League baseball player who was too old to make the major leagues by the time Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. He’s a mile-a-minute storyteller, funny, honest, direct, and mercurial. He is married to the loyal Rose, has two sons and a brother, Gabriel, who believes he is the namesake archangel partly because of the damage done to him by a World War II injury.
He shares Friday night gin, more stories and big laughs with his co-worker Jim Bono. It’s a show with a lot of those laughs, but when the underlying troubles of Troy’s life begin to emerge, most self-inflicted, the darker turn reveals the commonality of which Wilson spoke, and we begin to see ourselves in addition to the characters.
The fences of the title are Troy’s literal and figurative way of keeping out the world. Rose wants a fence to protect her loved ones; Troy wants to keep out “Mr. Death,” his personification of the devil as the source of all his woes, from prejudice to bad luck. But the fences are also the figurative ones that Troy has erected between himself and his family.
Louis B. Murray’s performance as Troy is magnetic. He captures Troy’s animated and cocky personality, while at the same time leaving no doubt that there is a depth to the man that houses all manner of anger and hate and insecurity. Murray’s brilliance is highlighted during a brief scene in Act II when, after a tragedy, he challenges Mr. Death to “stay on the other side of that fence ‘til you ready for me.” It’s a searing performance.
Murray’s scenes with Bono, played by Tillmon Figgs, lay the groundwork for much of the story. It’s clear that Bono loves his friend, and looks up to him, even though he suspects Troy of infidelity and various other misdeeds. The two together, thanks to the diligence of both performers, are the engine that keeps the show moving.
JoAn Monplaisir gives us a Rose whose strength is quiet but unmistakable, even in the face of an almost unconscionable act of selfishness by Troy. Shawn Armwood as Gabe is funny and endearing, never allowing his character to fall into caricature, but instead infusing a dignity that makes Gabe both heartbreaking and heartwarming.
Mullins had a difficult task taking on the direction of a show that was ready for an audience two years ago. But the cast hasn’t missed a beat. Mullins keeps the pace moving, the characters real, and the story visceral.
Wilson once said of his playwriting, “I try to explore in terms of the life I know best, those things which are common to all culture.” This production does just that.
BCT’s Fences is a powerful play with vivid, evocative characters and blunt language that offers to kick down the doors of ignorance and prejudice for anyone willing to walk through.
Fences runs thru April 24, FSa 8pm, Su 2pm; about two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission. Masks optional, but proof of COVID vaccination required. Tickets $22 w/discounts. Call 301-805-0219 or visit BCTheatre.com.