I always feel a kinship between August Wilson and the ancient Greek playwrights.
Like the dramas of Euripides and other Athenian dramatists there are always outside forces at work driving the characters of Wilson’s plays, for the Greeks it was the Gods, for Wilson the interplay of social economics factors, and history.
History was Apollo in Wilson’s dramas, the supreme arbitrator.
Then there was Wilson’s language.
The Greeks knew that what was spoken on stage surpassed the mundane banter that filled the Agora. The language on stage was initially hymns addressed to the Gods and ever since stage dialogue has stood closer to poetry than prose.
Ten of Wilson’s plays are spaced specifically across the decades of the twentieth century, yet all banded in a union by the cadence of poetry Wilson infuses in his urban dialects.
If Shakespeare gave us works of poetic drama, then surely Wilson has given us works of dramatic poetry.
But the sturdiest connection I see between Wilson and the ancient Greeks is in the intimacy they are capable of establishing with their audiences.
Now the Greeks did have an advantage. In a city-state just about everybody knows everybody else, at least by sight.
Because they passed them every other day, In Aristophanes’ comedies the playwrights’ targets were immediately recognizable to those in the “theatron” (literally: viewing place).
The personae were of their world. Wilson exercises a similar power.
The son of a German immigrant cook, and an African-American cleaning woman, from North Carolina, Wilson took his mother’s name and heritage, but his writing is not so bound.
The Pittsburgh Cycle, also known as The Century Cycle is Wilson’s masterwork.
It consists of ten plays, all taking place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, except for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom which has Chicago as its setting.
The first of the series, though not the first Wilson wrote, Gem of the Ocean opens in the year 1904. It is the tale of that First Generation freed of slavery’s bondage as they stumble into an unknown and uncertain future.
From there the individual works span the decades, concluding Wilson’s final work Radio Golf, finishing the cycle with the year 1997.
Certain characters make appearances in more than one of the plays, and children of characters from earlier plays will appear in later ones, even so, the cycle is not the telling of a single family’s story. Initially it seems to be the tales of a people and their struggles.
Wilson’s main characters are all urban blacks confronting, defying, and suffering the presence of racism in their worlds.
Yet as Wilson labored at expanding the tome, an odd metamorphose occurs, all but imperceptibly, in each work. While always tainted by prejudices of society, the battles and trials the characters face, grow in bearing and relevance.
Audiences consisting of white Europeans, WASPs, Sansei, Arab-Americans or numerous other hivenated pedigrees perhaps struggle with understanding the toxic legacy of slavery or its dynamics. Yet all have experienced the prickly potency of our dreams, and know how sharp the bitterness of their frustration can be.
Play by play Wilson draws in the audiences, and in doing so, in a sense, makes Richard Wright’s Invisible Man visible to them.
As we acknowledge, we identify with; it’s an inescapable trait of the human animal. So by making his work less a story of a single race it becomes more the story of a people. The American people.
From 1984 to 2005 Wilson stayed at his literary loom, interlacing that thread through 10 plays, but when finished, the tapestry revealed itself greater than the braid.
The thread that Wilson began with, that thread of a single people, was in fact the fabric of a nation.
I see this transformation as beginning with Fences.
Written in 1987, the world of the play is 1957.
It was the world of Martin Luther King, of Eisenhower signing the first Civil Rights Act since 1875, of Brown vs. The Board of Education, of Hank Aaron bringing the pennant to Milwaukee, of Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus calling out the US National Guard.
It was a world in change, when race went from being only viewed as a black problem to being seen as an America problem.
I think that change is the essence of Wilson’s play, and the intention of his cycle.
Edit thirty lines from Fences and you have a drama that could be played by a white, brown or yellow cast.
Wilson, Baldwin, Hansberry are not great “black writers.”
They are simply great writers. Yes, they may speak of the trials of a single race, but their poetic rendering of failure and triumph and the cost of either, echoes within all humanity.
Wilson’s plays tend to be minimally plotted, typically of the conflicts within an extended family. Fences is of that pattern. In all of his works, a ripple of the drama flows not so much in the external dilemmas that life throws at us, but in those barriers we place before ourselves. In Fences that ripple overflows its banks.
In this play, Wilson argues that the bricks and mortar of those barriers are fashioned from our inward demons.
Fences tells the story of Troy (Michael A. Sheppard), a man who once hoped for a major league career and now labors as a garbage man. He is a man caught at the center of history. His drinking buddy and co-worker Jim Bono (Christopher Carringrton) is someone he once shared a cell with. His brother Gabriel (Matt Orduña) suffers the effects of a head wound he brought back from the recent war. Both are grim reminders of a harsh past. His two sons, however, Lyons (Theo Perkins) and Cory (Jermelle Simon), are emboldened by the sense of change in the air. A change their father views with open distain.
Behind Troy is a history of bitterness, ahead a future he feels he has no part in. He, and all his longings and wishes, are trapped in the center of the storm of a changing era. Rose (Karole Foreman), Troy’s loving wife, tries to be the eye of that tempest, to provide him a calm harbor.
But darker clouds gather on the horizon.
The question is one of fences. Do we build them to keep others out or some safe? Does a fence make a sanctuary or a prison?
The plays in The Pittsburgh Cycle stand independently of one another, but none more solidly than Fences which took both the Pulitzer and the Tony in 1987.
If you are unfamiliar with Wilson, that is an immense shame. He is a rarity, not just in the theatre, but the world at large; he is an artist whose works improves those exposed to them.
The difficulty, though, in doing great theater – Shakespeare, O’Neill, Pinter – is it requires a company and cast equal to the challenges of the work.
International City Theatre in the past has shown itself equal to just about any challenge, and it doesn’t disappoint with this production of Fences.
Gregg T. Daniel spins this staging like a master potter throwing at his wheel, and maintains his artistry to the final burnishing.
Daniel brings intelligence and craft to the work, but most importantly he has skills and experience required by a director to allow the work to speak with the author’s clarity.
A director attempts to achieve this eloquence first and foremost though his cast and Daniel has a very articulate one.
It is, as one expects of ICT, an exceptional group of actors on stage with Carringrton, Perkins, Simon and Foreman all turning in praiseworthy performances.
Special mention must be made of the intensity and humanity Matt Orduña, brings to his character Gabriel, the brother impaired by the head wound sustained in the war.
Though some might judge it as a “small part,” the role of Gabriel is of great import, serving in a very distinct fashion as Shakespeare’s Chorus from Henry V.
The simple fact is Chorus opens the curtains on Henry V, so he better be a high kicker.
The role of Gabriel closes Fences. In doing so he either validates his brother or he doesn’t, depending on the capabilities of the actor. And as thus, Gabriel is as vital to a successful staging of Fences as Chorus is to Henry V.
Orduña takes the show, all ready at a dizzying height, and heaves it higher still.
It is Michael A. Sheppard’s performance as Troy that lifts the production into the stratosphere. It has been an education watching Sheppard’s growth as an actor over the years.
He was always a large presence on a stage, now he has the mastery of his craft to where I doubt there’s a theatre built whose seams he couldn’t burst with his talent.
There are, I suppose, one or two “acceptable” reasons one could give for missing this production.
In a vegetative state.
Abducted by extraterrestrials.
If however, you are up and about, and in no imminent danger of being subjected to an extensive probing, then you really need to buy a ticket.
International City Theatre Presents “Fences”
Date: Wednesday, August 19 2015 to Sunday, September 13 2015
Thursday-Saturday Performances at 8pm
Sunday Matinee at 2pm
Location: Center Theater in Long Beach
Click Here for directions and information: longbeachcc.com
International City Theatre (562) 436-4610