Yesterday’s performance felt like an epic moment in history. Not only did we have black Broadway royalty collaborating to produce Fences, August Wilson’s most famous play, but yesterday marked the 50th Anniversary of the historic March on Washington. Martin Luther King Jr and August Wilson were surely smiling down from heaven on The Greene Space of New York City, applauding everyone’s efforts. The work being done here is important. Fences is August Wilson’s most acclaimed masterpiece, and it is the show that garnered him the title of “Black Shakespeare.” No question, this high work of art is theatre (and black theatre) at it’s finest.
When I arrived at The Greene Space in New York’s West Village, the cast was just finishing up a pre-show discussion with a group of local high school students. The students, who stayed for the performance, were well behaved and very engaged throughout. There were several black notables in the audience (Danielle Brooks of Orange is the New Black and Fences director, Broadway’s Kenny Leon, to name a few), and overall, it was a very diverse crowd. I came with an open heart and mind, as I had never seen Fences performed live. Often times, it can be difficult to connect to and enjoy a play presented in the form of a reading, but I was immediately captivated by this cast and I believe listeners/viewers everywhere were as well!
Firstly, with a cast of theatre veterans like the one assembled for Fences, you can’t go wrong. Moreover, with Ruben Santiago-Hudson commanding the role of Troy Maxson so masterfully, you are bound to stay at the very edge of your seat. The show was powerful, and the performances moving. When it came time for the well known “I ain’t got to like you” scene, I couldn’t help but get teary eyed. As mean as Troy was to his son, you couldn’t help but sympathize with the man’s plight. Somewhere in act one, when it was revealed that Troy’s character is illiterate and was never taught to read, it occurred to me that this was a reality of the time. Something so unimaginable to me, and I’m sure to plenty others.
Cory (Jonathan Majors) and Raynell (Eden Duncan-Smith) have a beautiful moment at the end of the play that again made me cry. The two sing a blues song about “Blues gone where the good dogs go.” After singing the song, Cory decides to stay and go to his father’s funeral. We, the audience, have the realization along with Cory, that Troy was indeed a good man who did the best he could with the little he had to make the most for those he loved. It’s yet another reminder that, man life is hard.
“I once wrote a short story called ‘The Best Blues Singer in the World’ and it went like this: ‘The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning.’ End of story. That says it all. Nothing else to say. I’ve been rewriting that same story over and over again. All my plays are rewriting that same story. I’m not sure what it means, other than life is hard.” August Wilson, 1945 – 2005
Life is hard. And this show deals with some really tough topics. But thank goodness for the lighter moments. Ray Anthony Thomas and Eugene Lee are simply perfect as Gabriel and Jim Bono. Thomas and his repeated “Lyons! Roar! King of the Jungle!” broke the tension with a good laugh every time. However, his character is both comical and heart breaking, suffering with mental illness and PTSD due to the war.
The bottom line is that August Wilson’s plays are some of the most realistically gripping tales ever written to date. They speak directly to your soul. Every moment of this great play was so believable that I felt like I was truly back in 1957 Pittsburgh. Thank you to director Kenny Leon and the terrific cast of Fences for taking me there with you today. This experience will live with me forever.
After the show, I spoke with Tony Award winning actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson about how this Wilson Cycle presentation began as a distant dream for him. He credits Indira Etwaroo, The Greene Space’s Founding Executive Producer, for making his dream a reality. He told me, “I kept waiting for her to say no, but she just kept saying yes!” Speaking with Ruben, it was clear that he felt passionately about bringing these plays to the public. It is important for everyone, but especially young theatre artists of color, to have access to these brilliant and inspiring works. Thank you for making that possible!
Did you watch the live webcast? What did you think?? How did Ruben’s performance compare to Denzel’s or James Earl Jones? Stay tuned! Lloyd Richards (director and collaborator on five of Wilson’s plays) Effect is tomorrow!
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