Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Paint it Black

By Chris Davis

MARCH 16, 1998:  Recipe for an August Wilson play: Take Death of a Salesman and paint it black. Take the all-American backyard setting of All My Sons and move it to the slums. Take the best American tragedies of this century, temper them with forgiveness, and infuse them with jubilant optimism.

There is nothing original about the works of two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, and that may be the reason that he is the most important dramatist in America today. The son of a white (absentee) father and black mother, Wilson has long voiced his desire for an all-black theatre, yet he is the only black playwright to be consistently produced on “The Great White Way.” His scripts are deemed safe for the predominantly white audiences of an overwhelmingly white craft, and fit neatly between volumes of O’Neill, and Shepard, just one shelf down from Chekhov. In this regard, Wilson is a reluctant, perhaps even accidental bridge builder. Awash in contradiction, he is a historian who never looks back. What is lost is past, and tomorrow is a hellhound waiting to eat all but the ever-vigilant. Forcibly separated from their natural history, and forever defined by a white standard, his characters must create their own mythology in order to survive in a world they are constantly (and painfully) reminded they didn’t create.

Theatre Memphis’ production of Wilson’s award-winning drama Fences is one of the best productions to appear on its main stage in – well, maybe ever. In a 1996 speech, August Wilson made the claim that subscriptions (often praised as the salvation of regional and community playhouses) hold theatres “hostage to mediocrity,” and truer words were never spoken. The hair of TM’s audience generally ranges from graying to blue, and their skin from pasty to pale. In an overheard conversation at the Wednesday-night preview one woman quipped, “I hope this isn’t one of those bad-word plays. I hate that. It’s nothing but a waste of time.” Fearing that such are the overwhelming sentiments of the subscribers, a subtle and silent fascism has swept through our nation’s theatres (TM included), producing seasons of safe bets and possibly the blandest outpouring of dramatic verbiage since the Restoration. Fences is the first black-themed play to appear on TM’s main stage in its 78-year history, and it arrives conspicuously at a time when precious and ever-dwindling grant moneys tend to favor education, outreach, and cultural diversity. Cynicism aside, (lest I fall prey to the same tragic flaw that led Fences’ Troy Maxon to his tragic end – the inability to see that opportunity is always golden, and that miles can be measured in foot-candles) the enthusiasm of Fences’ cast masks its shortcomings, and vividly portrays the social and psychological ramifications of having to be twice as good and work twice as hard to get half as far.

Cynthia A. Farmer and Percy Lee Bradley in Fences.
As patriarch and faded Negro League star-cum-garbageman Troy Maxon, Percy Lee Bradley is irresistibly charming. Subtly presenting Troy’s stubbornness in the form of unquestionable self-assurance, Bradley makes Troy a winner – even in the midst of boozing and bullshitting. Charm, however, is not always enough. Bradley falls ever so short of capturing the darker side of Troy’s nature. The violent outbursts directed toward his son Cory (played by a well-spoken but slightly stiff Shawn D. Stewart) seem contrived. By holding himself back, Bradley lowers the play’s stakes, and reduces the tension just enough to keep the play from soaring. Cynthia Farmer is too young to play Troy’s wife, and her youth betrays her. She has neither the sass nor the strength to make her character rich, though her simple honesty keeps the action moving even when the feistiness is missing.

These small but significant flaws would cause TM’s Fences to bog down were it not for the fine performances of its supporting cast. As Bono, the play’s laid-back voice of reason, Benjamin Greene Jr. gives a perfectly tuned performance, and achieves a level of comfort and un-self-consciousness seldom seen on a community stage. As Troy’s ne’er-do-well offspring by a previous relationship, Dwayne Maples resists the temptation to be too sly, allowing the audience to get close enough to delight in his rebellious spirit, and laugh with sympathy rather than haughtiness when at last they find out where his money is really coming from. The star of the evening is first-time actor Larry Q. Williams as Troy’s brother Gabe. Gabe is a combat veteran whose head wound has left him in a state of perpetual childhood. So full is this characterization that the least addition could send the performance sailing over the top and into caricature.

This is TM artistic director Michael Fortner’s third time to direct Fences, and he is obviously proud of his theatre’s landmark production. As well he should be.

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