Heaven’s gate

October took a heavy toll on African-American culture. In addition to the death of Rosa Parks, acclaimed African-American playwright August Wilson died on Oct. 2 at age 60.

It is a fitting coincidence, then, that a posthumous staging of Wilson’s Fences, set in the 1950s, should roughly coincide with the death of Rosa Parks and follow in her wake at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

Though not explicitly about the civil rights movement, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences, which opened on Broadway in 1987, is a fascinating exploration of barriers, not just the ones we encounter and try to conquer, but the ones we create and perpetuate.

The play is the story of the Maxsons, a poor black family living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. The family patriarch, Troy Maxson, a garbageman, is the master of his own modest domain, the small patch of yard behind a tenement. In his 50s, he feels a lingering bitterness over his failed career in the Negro Leagues, and his resentment drives him to discourage his children from following their dreams, lest they too experience disappointment.

But rather than a character study of a cold-blooded bastard, Fences is a study of divisions and barriers. A hallmark of Wilson’s work is a kind of poetic symbolism; he has a knack for imagery that can suddenly cast a spell over a seemingly realistic drama. In fact, it can become a post-theater game to try to identify all the symbols. Throughout the play, Troy forces Cory to help him fence in the yard. Barriers are apt symbols for poverty, for the weak and marginalized, with their “backs to the wall.” The fences are sometimes as real as prison bars or asylum walls, sometimes as abstract as Jim Crow. But the fence that goes up on stage serves as a symbol of the deepening divisions in the Maxson family. Troy — not coincidentally named after a famous walled city — has made his heart into an impregnable stronghold. By the end of the play, his selfishness, his rigid boundaries, have reduced him to the gatekeeper of the household, rather than its respected head. Sometimes the symbolism is almost too bald, as when Uncle Gabriel blows a horn near the end of the play.

But, for a decade so recently celebrated for the fight against Jim Crow, Wilson strikes a surprisingly somber note, which is more about the Northern black experience, with deferred dreams and the raising of new barriers. By the play’s end, most of the characters are institutionalized, whether committed, imprisoned, converted or enlisted.

Like all great chroniclers of the American underbelly, Wilson has an outstanding ear for vernacular. The language of the street gives the play a vital authenticity. As a playwright, Wilson was a late bloomer who found his voice as a poet before he began writing for the stage. His characters speak in a way that is poetic without stiffness, artistic but natural, glittering with the meter and argot of urban speech.

This dramatically and symbolically rich text, under the direction of Plowshares Theatre Company’s Gary Anderson, becomes a night of compelling theater. James Cowans gives a powerhouse performance as Troy Maxson, a man who guards his territory against everybody and everything, sometimes swinging a bat and screaming out into the darkness to ward off death. Herman McCain turns in a nuanced performance as Troy’s old pal Jim Bono, and makes it look easy. Rhonda Freya English, as Troy’s beleaguered wife Rose, got the audience interjecting sympathetically about her plight. Young Christopher Jason Williams struggled with another complicated character, the dominated son Cory, who wants to rebel against his controlling father, but also seeks his love and approval. Unfortunately, Williams grimaces his way through this inner battle, often looking more confused than conflicted.

Technically, the show lets the actors do most of the heavy lifting. Warm, high-key lighting fits the setting well, and director Anderson’s scenic design is simple but rich, conveying the ramshackle warmth of a ghetto tenement — though marred by the use of shiny metal sawhorses that look like they just came from Home Depot.

That said, those looking for three-plus hours of entertainment can expect talented actors performing a timely play.


Fences shows at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 17, and 3 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 19. Runs through Sunday, Dec. 4., at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit. Call 313-872-0279 for tickets.

Michael Jackman writes about theater for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

About The Author

Michael Jackman

Born in 1969 at Mount Carmel hospital in Detroit, Jackman grew up just 100 yards from the Detroit city line in east Dearborn. Jackman has attended New York University, the School of Visual Arts, Northwestern University and Wayne State University, though he never got a degree. He has worked as a bar back, busboy,...
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