Thursday, April 17, 2014

August Wilson’s Fences at Marin Theatre Company through May 11, 2014

Carl Lumbly (Troy Maxson), Margo Hall (Rose),
Steven Anthony Jones (Bono) in August Wilson's Fences.
Photo Credit: Ed Smith.
Carl Lumbly embodies in his Troy a man conflicted, scarred, yet hopeful someone new will emerge. There seems to be a man inside his skin quietly bursting at his seams, which he guards closely, or so he thinks. Like the shadowy figure Carl Jung references in his voluminous work on consciousness, specifically the unconscious, Sherry Salman in her essay, "The Creative Psyche: Jung's Major Contributions" (ed. P. Young-Eisendrath; T. Dawson 1997) says often what is within psychic reach is a "contradictory opposite. [What is ignored or suppressed leaks from Troy's seams]" (66-67).  .

"The struggle [Troy experiences, which eventually tears him apart] is [a difficult] individuation process" (316-317).  Throughout the play, Troy struggles to accept or reconcile his strengths and weaknesses and how this performance reveals to an audience his human intention. Troy's psychic terrain is bound by fences-- ones he erects and others erected for him: in the yard, at home, on the job and within the dominant society-- he can only move so far before he bumps into a barrier. Salman says, "this process strives not for perfection, but for wholeness. The 'opposites within' are related to both willingness and conscience; adaptation to the collective culture is not the ultimate goal" (67). Troy says, he just wants to be happy, to laugh and forget the burdens that often seem oppressive and stifling.

And so we watch as he literally wrestles bodily with these demons that sometimes pin him down and lay claim to his life. Lumbly brings physicality to the work which externalizes this battle. We are not certain who will win, but Lumbly's Troy is a fit opponent. Wilson's Troy though he embraces and assimilates his psychic opposites, "the shadow and other unconscious material,' it is never a surrender of his autonomy rather an acknowledgement of the "wisdom of the wholeness of life and a [grudging] acceptance and love of [his] fate. We watch him over the course of the play [metaphysically] 'dissolve and coagulate' [again and again]" (Salman 68).

Troy calls his shadow "Blue," a good hound dog. In a song he sings, a refrain or overture in the work; Ole Blue teaches Troy’s children a lesson in overcoming. Troy carries this memory from his father— all the goodness he has left of home is this song and his brother Gabriel. Images hold within themselves a healing force and Ole Blue gives Troy a way to articulate reality as he experiences it (Salman 68). “You have to take the crooked with the straight,” Troy tells his sons, as he reminds himself as misses a curve ball.

When we meet Troy he is coming home after a week on the job picking up garbage. He has a fifth in his pocket which he shares with his buddy, Bono (Steven Anthony Jones). The two men talk about the job, their wives and Troy's relationship with the character Death. Jones's character brings out a side of Lumbly's Troy absent when Troy speaks to his sons and to his wife. There is a comfort in their fraternity Troy does not share with his family to his detriment when they are all he has left. 

Those Fridays with Bono anchor Troy's soul. It is here that the masterful performance shifts into a space where ritual and magic occur. There is an archangel in the play, injured in the war, Troy's brother Gabriel (actor Adrian Roberts). Gabriel loves Troy and tries to protect him, to sound heaven's alarm when danger is near, and to use his sixth sense for recognizing Hell-hounds. Actor Adrian Roberts when asked Opening Night about his character calls Gabriel a shaman or priest, a holy man. Stooped and a bit weary, Robert's "Gabriel" sells fruit, lives in the basement of a neighbor's house which embarrasses Troy who feels responsible to Gabriel. 

In the front of the house sits a tree. We see Troy sit at its roots and pour libations there toward the end of the play when he drinks alone, Bono gone. Troy fills the house and the lives of his wife and kids just as the tree fills the yard—its limb sticking out like a hand asking for alms. Troy says when trying to explain his feelings to his wife, Rose, that when he comes home from work on payday, everyone is lined up on the porch with their hands out to him.  He never leaves them empty for long.

Troy keeps a string with a ball of twine attached to the tree limb (snug in a gnarled hole) which he takes out and swings his bat.  Troy played on the Negro League teams with famous ball players like Satchel Paige— he is bitter that he wasn't drafted into the major leagues like Jackie Robinson whom he scoffs at as he says he could hit rings around.

Prison (enslavement) is why Troy wasn't able to compete when he returned to society; at 40 he was too old. Unperturbed in this instance and others, Troy has a way of shaping the world so that it makes sense to him. We might call him a hero. He survived. He is a man who takes risks, often getting knocked down, yet he recovers and gets back up again.

Troy's ability to trek back through and beyond his childhood conflicts and trauma is evidence of his healing journey (Salman p. 64). In Troy, the playwright, August Wilson, shows how dramatic and invasive childhood trauma is; how it grabs one spiritually in a vise only death can relinquish. Troy tries to put as much psychic and physical distance between himself and his father and the brutality he experienced in his father's house, yet he carries this within him—he is his father.

Like the elder Maxson, Troy also commits great wrongs, and like his dad, regret and remorse don't have a place in his universe— he doesn't have time to back track. The absence of retrospection limits his mobility, stays his hand once Cory is born, yet frees him once Rose stands up to him. "It is his "psyche's self-regulating mechanism; regression and introspection are not only potentially adaptive [here] but the sine qua non of healing. . . (Salman p. 64 quoting Jung). 
Eddie Ray Jackson (Cory) and Carl Lumbly (Troy Maxson)
with Margo Hall (Rose
). Photo: Ed Smith.

He tells stories about death--wrestling with it and winning. He describes it as wearing a white sheet with a pointed cap— It is always near like the tree in proximity to the house— there is nothing there to keep it out and the fence project . . . continues unfinished for most of the play.  (The tree also reminds one of those that bore strange fruit--the pointed hat reference to the Ku Klux Klan).

There is an underlying element of terror in Troy's life that never quite leaves him feeling safe. He is a man who lives by the rules of the game. He calls it baseball, but though he practiced and was a champion, he wasn't allowed to play when his world dissolved and was reconstituted without him.

Troy's brother Gabriel keeps Death at bay with his constant policing of the Hell hounds. The elder brother carries a bugle attached to his belt. He brings Rose flowers and has a good word for Lyons, Troy's elder son, who is a musician. Injured in the war, Gabriel lives alone but visits often. He is a bit eccentric and people make fun of him, especially when he speaks of heaven and his conversations with Saint Peter about his brother Troy. 

Margo Hall's Rose is the quiet strength of the work. In this character Wilson composed a woman whom quietly loves her man to death. She trusts him, yet he doesn't need trust, he needs her to be the ball he keeps trying to hit out of the yard. He is trapped, and she doesn't know it until it is too late. In Hall's Rose we see a love bigger than betrayal. It is amazing, yet cautionary. We can only wonder how she will raise Raynell, Troy's daughter (actress Makaelah Bashir). 

Bono (Steven Anthony Jones), Troy's best friend, rounds out a world filled with work and family responsibilities. Troy seems determined to do better than his father, be a better man. There is not much softness in Troy; he tries to at least make space for his family, yet the rocky surface he calls love makes it hard to remain. There isn't much laughter at home and one doesn't see Rose or her son with friends. Bono is the only visitor.

Cut off – one wonders about the absence of friends. Rose seems to be at home alone a lot. She seems to always be waiting for Troy to return. She has willingly surrendered her life to him. Cory, their son (excellently performed by actor Eddie Ray Jackson), does so unwillingly. Troy is bright and challenges injustice. His wins set him apart from his friends whom he misses. There is just one moment in the play where we see him lose his composure and become violent. It's the unraveling of everything he tried to keep together— nothing is ever the same again.

However, his unraveling actually frees his family— the god, Troy, as in Trojan, no longer looms over them, blocking the sunshine. Rose admits to Cory when he is an adult that his father didn't ask her to give over her dreams when she met him. This was her contribution to the union, a lesson she learned dearly— Lambs are roasted and consumed, not kept as house pets. 

Wilson's Fences also shows how even if a fence is supposed to hold what one values within its boundaries, the world has a way of intruding. Troy tried to deny progress and change, despite living under a roof with evidence to the contrary— Cory, his son, who would have made him proud if Troy had dismantled the fencing around his mind and heart.

Troy speaks of Rose and their eighteen years together— he admits she saves him when the draft doesn't pick up for the team; however, he needs to save himself. His frequent encounters with death are just a fence he needs to climb over or dismantle. Similarly racial discrimination on the job and his wounded brother Gabriel are all fences.
Fences is the story of a man and a family post-emancipation trying to be free, but erecting fencing around themselves which keep each of them from touching each other genuinely. The edifices between each of them—Troy and Rose, Troy and Cory, Troy and Lyons—bar such interactions. 

Tyee Tilghman's portrays Lyons, Troy's first son conceived when he was young and poor. When Troy comes back into his firstborn's life after prison, Lyons is almost grown he tells us when we meet him as an adult. His father doesn't approve of his artistic career. Lyons is a musician, and like his Uncle Gabriel, he also plays a horn.

Gabriel greets his nephew, "Lyons, King of the jungle"— and growls with a clawing motion. The two laugh. Troy is surrounded by lions and angels, perhaps this is why though he falters he is able to get up? Lyons loves his dad, even when every word Troy speaks to and about him is negative. Lyons still visits his father's house nonetheless. Unlike Cory, Lyons wants fathering. He misses those years when he had to figure out what it meant to be a man and the fences, once again, prevent Troy from embracing his son, Lyons's, longing for absolution and closure.  
Margo Hall (Rose), Adrian Roberts (Gabriel) and Carl Lumbly (Troy Maxson)
in August Wilson's Fences at the MTC. Photo: Ed Smith.

The way Carl Lumbly portrays Troy is as a heroic man without heart. Troy tries to stir it with Bono, his prison buddy and now coworker at the garbage company. We see his amorous advances towards Rose and his attempt to stir sweetness in their bed. Lastly there is his son, Cory, whom he has big plans for. Cory is his hope for the future, but fenced in by his own traumatic experience with a father whose love was brutality, Troy misses an opportunity for happiness at home with his wife and son. 

The fencing he is building around the house, which is a task that isn't completed until almost the end of the play is perhaps resisted, because it is a further indication of the trapped emotions and feelings Troy is victim to. Why can't he tell his son he loves him? Why can't he go to his son Lyons's gig at the club? Is there a reason why no one visits? What is it about Troy that is so intense and so hard that he acts as his own barrier to the warmth and happiness he tells Rose he craves? How does he or where does he find access to these spaces where air nor light seem to permeate? 

Every time I see this play Fences, I think about it differently. In the Lower Bottom Players production, directed by Dr. Ayodele Nzinga last year at the African American Museum and Library, Oakland, I was drawn to the ceremony and ritual. In this production, at Marin Theatre Company, directed by Derrick Sanders with a fantastic original musical score composed by Chris Houston with kudos to design teammates: Will McCandless, sound; J.B. Wilson, scenic; Christine Crook, costume; Kurt Landisman, lighting (especially when Gabriel opens heaven's gates for Troy);  I am drawn to the barriers or fences. Troy is caged and his eventual emancipation injures all involved. Is his freedom worth it or was Troy better off a slave?

In August Wilson's Fences, directed by Sanders at MTC, 397 Miller Avenue, in Mill Valley, the answer depends on whom you ask (smile). Tickets are $20 (all shows) for patrons under 30 years old, with identification. For information call: 415.388.5208 or
To learn more about the show and other Fences related events visit:

Related Events
April 17, there is a free August Wilson’s "Fences" Talk @ 1:00 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St., San Francisco.

April 24
, Perspectives | Matinee only (show at 1pm, pre-show talk at noon) A topical speaker (TBA) will offer insights into the play. Bring your bag lunch. Coffee; cookies will be served.

Apr. 28
, August Wilson’s "Fences" Talk @ 7 p.m. at Book Passage Marin, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd, Corte Madera.

Most Shows feature an After Words post-show Q&As with a member of MTC’s artistic staff (often with one or more members of the cast) after every performance, except on Saturday evenings, and Opening and Closing Nights.


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