The Lower Bottom Playaz continue their exploration of August Wilson's century with Fences
, the sixth play in the ten play cycle at a new site, the African American Museum and Library, at Oakland (AAMLO). The house was full Friday evening, Nov. 29, 2013, with an audience that included adults and children, even dignitaries like Oakland's mayor, Jean Quan, Wo'se House of Amen Ra and Vukani Mawetu Choir members, plus friends and family of the cast. The set allowed one to use her imagination as the front porch and yard were the setting for most scenes, a screened backdoor--a few chairs and a bottle of Devil's Cut
The perfect setting for ritual theatre as libations continued to be poured as the two men, Troy (Adimu Madyun) and Bono (Harold Desmond) reflect on their lives pre and post incarceration, pre and post the slave plantation, which for Troy is not a euphemism as he'd spent time in both.
August Wilson's play Fences
(setting 1957-1965) is perhaps one of my favorite works for the intricacies at play between men pivoting on its protagonist Troy
: he and his friend Bono, Troy and his mean father, Troy and his sons, Lyons and Cory, Troy and his brother Gabriel. And then there are the women, whom Wilson throws in for color or flavor, like salt? However, in Fences
, Rose actually has a presence which shows up in the second act quite powerfully as rendered by Kenitra Love.
For Troy Maxson, former Negro League baseball star, life is analogous to a field he has yet to exit, the play he is trying to set up and the team members he has inherited (who don't always understand his calls). He tells his young son, "a black man is born with two strikes before he gets to the plate."
One son, Lyons, whom his uncle, Gabriel greets, "King of the jungle," says "music helps him belong in the world, it gives him a reason to get out the bed." The other son, Cory is an aspiring baseball star with talent. Maxson rules his roost with an iron fist; sweet to his wife Rose who took a chance on him when after 15 years behind bars for killing a man, he hadn't yet proved himself worthy of --you name it, decency. His history that of a man chasing sunsets, making foolish choices which take him away from his first sweetheart, Lyons's mother, and a son, Lyons whom never truly sees let alone knows.
Emotionally absent for both his sons and his wife, Rose, Troy is a man living with a fractured dream pretending he can walk without pain or support from the community, he refuses whenever Bono interjects an opinion counter what he wants to hear. Raised by a father who was brutal and mean, Troy says he escaped at 14 and headed for Memphis where he thought he'd find his fortune. Poverty met him there and followed him to Pittsburgh, where all Wilson's plays are set. The grim circumstances of his beginning make Troy's success all that more admirable.
Too bad he doesn't enjoy it.
When we meet Troy on a Friday afternoon, he is laughing with his friend Bono. The men have just gotten paid and its time for the two to share a drink and talk about the week past. Troy wants to drive the garbage truck, which at that point is driven exclusively by white men.
Troy is a man who is thoughtful and righteous. He is honest and loves his family even if he comes across as crude and unfeeling. His household is one where people hold a lot inside, so much that at times there is nothing left over to share. In this way, Troy fails his sons--Lyons and Cory who want his participation in their lives, something he refuses to do, not because he doesn't want to. Rather the reason their father is tied to his unconscious fear of failure is because he really doesn't know where to start in this process.
He has no skills.
How can a man whose father hated him, love himself let alone his own sons? The doubt, the fear or unworthiness is like a cloud he can't help but shield himself from with whiskey, sex, work and other women when all other means fail. The idea that he could fill this void with love and acceptance never surfaces, at least not in the Troy we see on stage. Bono is more self-reflective than his friend, whom he looks up to and follows. To his credit, Bono does not follow Troy blindly and in the end loving tries to steer his friend right when he is falling off the precipice.
Harold Desmond's Bono is a kind and compassionate friend to Troy. He does not abandon him and continues to throw him a life jacket when he is floundering in the waters of despair and loneliness without anchor. The men enact a weekly ceremony where they invite Jesus and the Devil to do battle (smile).
Dressed in white, the meetings on the porch each Friday are councils where the elders discuss matters concerning the community and pour libations to seal the contracts made and promises given. Ayodele Nzinga, Ph.D., director's handling of this work is restorative for the Oakland community. August Wilson's Century Cycle, with "Season 12: Tales of Iron and Water," position those who listen to the conversation Troy never has with his two sons while he is alive, for a changed outcome. Black boys and by extension. black men, now have an opportunity to interrupt this discourse evident in Cory's welcome return and Lyons's embrace of his younger brother. Cory is Troy's hope for a better future, for a future where a black father can tell his son when asked, "Do you love me?"
There is much talk about the American Promise, yet, when Troy walks the straight and narrow path to freedom he loses himself. His metaphysical fence keeps the family together and the devil out. That's his hope, but what if you are the devil?
Troy speaks many times of wrestling the devil. The devil is his tormented soul. He is a man duty bound. He takes care of his family, because that's what he is supposed to do, not what he wants or enjoys doing. When his younger son asks him why he hates him. Troy asks him if he feeds him, clothes him and provides a roof over his head. The answer to all is yes. The father tells his son that as long as his dad is upholding his duty, that is all that should matter.
Troy as a father is emotionally underdeveloped given a childhood where his father ran away his mother and all subsequent women--he was that difficult to get along with. Unlike his brutish dad, Troy exercises restraint when challenged by Cory repeatedly. In the capable actor, Madyun's hands, Troy cries when he realizes what he has lost, his son's respect and admiration.
The way Adimu Madyun plays Troy, we see a man who feels stuck yet can't figure out how to enjoy life. His family doesn't bring him joy, so he looks outside these relationships--he doesn't go to the club to hear his older son Lyons play in the band. He doesn't encourage his younger son, Cory, to pursue his dreams of playing ball. And he never asks his wife Rose is she is happy.
Then there is guilt, Troy's guilt from his exploitation of his brother Gabriel's injuries suffered in the war. His brother has a metal plate in his head. Nonetheless, Gabriel wrestles with hell hounds and speaks with St. Peter often about his brother Troy whose name is on the roll book. The saint wears a trumpet around his neck which without a working mouth piece is rather inadequate for the job he is called to, so he improvises. Gabriel lives for a time with Ms. Pearl, a thinly veiled allusion to the Pearly Gates
where Gabriel works (smile).
Improvisation is what a people do who have no recollection of love or kindness. Troy in the absence of a mother's love and care imagines such in Rose who tries to fill this void but comes up short when she plants her desires for love and acceptance in what she terms, fallow, rocky and infertile soil. Nothing grows between the couple but eventual despair. Money, employment security and basic needs like housing are met, yet Troy and Rose illustrate how unexpressed discontent and longing leak into relationships until its tenuous seams are opened, the garmet rent and in (their case) permanent disrepair.
Unhealthy parents, parents suffering from the recent and latent trauma of abuse as Troy is, cannot raise healthy boys or participate in healthy relationships--Troy speaks about laughter and how with Rose he no longer laughs. The cycle of generational abuse between fathers and sons illustrated in Wilson's cyclic familial drama cannot end unless such characters are allowed to open up and reflect on their inherited histories.
When Troy leaves the cotton plantation, the only one of his eleven siblings he remains in touch with is Gabriel whose head is blow off in the war, a plate holding together what little there is left of his sensibilities. Gabriel wants Troy to like him, yet Troy having taken Gabriel's government settlement and spent it on a house for himself and his family feels guilty. He feels guilty and eventually has his brother locked up in an institution for the insane.
A product of institutional abuse himself, the Jim Crow south which grew from slavery, the prison system which robbed him of his dreams of baseball stardom, and then the institution of marriage which gifts him with children he is incapable of rearing well--we see hopelessness drowned weekly in a bottle of whiskey and a glamorization of tussles with the devil who up until the end Troy keeps at bay.
Perhaps its these demons that eventually push Troy over the edge. He thinks he is winning the battle, yet they seem to win in the end--isolated, fenced in, Troy stands alone--a distant voice singing of Old Blue, a hound dog, all that is left.
In Adimu Madyun's skilled hands Troy is a man torn between duty and his soul's desire. He has lost 15 years of his life and doesn't want to lose anymore, so he works as a garbage man, the stench and residue of his work clinging to him as he baths and tries to forget the places he has gone and the stuff he has seen and touched and carried within his soul, yet can't forget no matter how much he says he loves Rose.
He is inarticulate. He cannot read and write and we wonder how he'll drive the garbage truck without a license, yet somehow Troy finds his way, determination often the only lens needed to see one through difficulty. Troy in his relationship with his sons reminds me of Lee Daniel's Butler's
relationship with his sons, the sons' who challenge their father's resistance to justice and refusal to look objectively at the changing American landscape. In Wilson's Fences
, this son is Cory, admirably portrayed by Ajman Thrower who literally wrestles with the big man and throws him.
We are amazed (smile).
Rose, wonderfully portrayed by Kenitra Love, holds her family together with a fence she imagines, but Troy is too big and unwieldy to carry or fence in, so is Cory (Ajman Thrower) her younger son. She needs Troy to walk with her and not use her as a crutch, but the world has crippled him, even more so that Gabriel. Gabriel portrayed by Luchan Baker, lives elsewhere touching down, letting his feet touch the ground every so often. We see him eating every now and then out of necessity. He always comes with a smile and a flower for rose--red like blood, his broken instrument around his neck.
It is Gabriel who keeps the devil at bay, not Troy, for all his songs and stories of might and feat. In his innocence and naivete Gabriel keeps his big brother, sister-in-law, nephews and niece safe and when Troy leaves the family, it is Gabriel who opens the doors to heaven for his brother to enter when his trumpet, still broken blows silence. .
Surrounded by images of historic black Oakland, this production of Fences
couldn't have better staging--scenes from the early twentieth century hang above us as stories of early black Californians echo Troy's on stage. The African American Museum and Library, at Oakland's permanent exhibit is augmented by a new one, The Griots of Oakland: Voices from the African American Oral History Project
, where young African American Oakland boys share their dreams and circumstances. They talk about safety, most of them feeling safest in their homes; home often where most of the "drama" unfolds on stage.
It is an abusive angry mean father who sets his young son, Troy, up for a life where he can't find happiness despite a good woman(s) and two law abiding smart sons. Lyons loses his wife just as his father loses his mother. Lyons follows his father to hell, despite his father's admonition to not do as he did. There is no tenderness or softness in Troy as portrayed by Madyun. He is his father--the man he despised and Rose tells her son, Cory, when he returns after six years in the Marines--that he is Troy.
So how do we stop the fratricide? How do black men repair their souls so they do not pass on a legacy of torment and confusion, illness and despair to their sons? Troy was functional. When we meet him he is lobbying for a promotion on the job and with it he gets to drive into white neighborhoods and inventory what they discard. He is resistant to change and does not want to spend money on his son's future because he wants to spare him his pain. However, his fear reduces his younger son's world to one he cannot find himself in--his young son's dreams shattered. What he is left with is an improvised future, rather the one planned. Troy's emotional absence causes Lyons, his elder son (portrayed well by Koran Jenkins) to fall into the hole his father had only covered not filled.
Sometimes fences keep the unwelcome at bay; other times, fences keep within issues best released. As with all Wilson journeys chronically 100 years of black history, there are no complete answers as our story is unfolding, its continuation in The Griots of Oakland: Voices from the African American Oral History Project
up through March 1, 2014. Visit http://www.healthyschoolsandcommunities.org/Alameda-6/griot.html
Don't miss the final performance of The Lower Bottom Playaz's production of August Wilson's Fences
at the African American Museum and Library (AAMLO), 659 14th Street at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way, 7 p.m. For tickets and information: (510) 457-8999, www.lowerbottomplayaz.com