Baseball and fireworks: Across history and in the heart6/25/2014
Landmarks of African-American experience turn up all through August Wilson’s drama, “Fences,” which helped it win the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. But the story of the player who broke baseball’s color line, Jackie Robinson, fits especially well. The time is the 1950s, the protagonist is a former Negro Leagues star, and the play also makes you recall that the heroic Robinson struggled with family tragedy. His son fell prey to heroin.
That’s the essence of “Fences.” Troy Maxson proves a “maximum son,” strapping and charismatic even past his prime. But when he wrestles his demons, the best he can manage is a bloody draw. Some of those demons erupt out of a racist society, in keeping with Wilson’s lifelong project: a 10-play cycle, one for each decade of the 20th Century. “Fences,” for instance, dramatizes how Maxson becomes the first black garbage truck driver in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The struggle to get ahead, however, has left the man estranged from his sons. For awhile, his wife, Rose, tempers and softens him — until Maxson betrays her.
Powerful as the material is, what matters at the Social Club is how vividly it’s brought off. The director, Ken-Matt Martin, claims in the playbill that he didn’t believe Des Moines could “pull a cast together” for an all-black production. The city, however, has come up with an ensemble equal to Wilson’s demands.
Odell McGhee, as Maxson’s brain-damaged brother Gabe, grins and yowls with heartbreaking incomprehension. Freddie Fulton, as the younger son Cory, may seem a bit stiff, but then the character’s a teenager, after all. When Cory finally erupts, waving a bat, Fulton comes through, part wounded, part murderous. The best of the secondary players, though, is Pernell Ferguson. As Maxson’s old friend Bono, Ferguson swings from joshing harmlessness (his guffaws are the first sounds we hear) to hard-forged insight. Ferguson’s worsening limp, as the decade unfolds, shows us the cost of moving up in life.
These and others orbit around a scruffy set of faded brick and weathered wood — the Maxson yard. The screen door allows for someone to eavesdrop — usually Rose — in a breakthrough performance by Tiffany Johnson.
Rose’s manchild of a husband may be the drama’s fulcrum, but its balance depends on the strength she can summon against Troy’s excesses. The greatest moment may be this churchwoman’s one burst of mild obscenity. No sooner does Johnson explode “Goddamn it!” than she covers her mouth, eyes wide with recognition of weakness — her own as well as her husband’s. She’s all eyes and lips, while Aaron Smith as Troy works more from the hips and shoulders, bearlike, always a threat to bust down the fences. The playwright had history in mind — and Martin’s production strongly suggests we need to put on more of Wilson’s cycle — but “Fences” is finally all about Troy and Rose. Between them they forge an intimate power unmatched by any duo onstage in Des Moines this season. CV
John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.