Review: August Wilson’s ‘Fences’ at CalShakes (****)

by Charles Kruger

The story of Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s “Fences” is Shakespearean in the depths of its themes.

Without a doubt, August Wilson’s “Fences” is one of the most important American plays of the past 30 years, along with the rest of his Pittsburgh Cycle which includes ten plays about African American experience, all set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where Wilson grew up. It is curious, as the company acknowledges, that this play has not been previously produced by CalShakes, but the present excellent production, featuring remarkable performances by Aldo Billingslea and Margo Hall,  more than makes up for any previous lapse.

The story of Troy Maxson and his family is Shakespearean in the depths of its themes—intimate, political, and universal—which are seamlessly interwoven into the story. Troy and his wife Rose have been happily married for many years. Troy has been a fine and adoring partner to the loyal and loving Rose since he proposed marriage, when Troy, recently released from prison, agreed to walk the straight and narrow. While in prison, Troy had learned to play baseball, and subsequently had a distinguished career in the segregated Negro League.

Aldo Billingslea is brilliant in the role of Troy Maxson in CalShakes production of August Wilson's "Fences." Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.
Aldo Billingslea is brilliant in the role of Troy Maxson in CalShakes production of August Wilson’s “Fences.” Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.

When that career ended, he accepted help from his friend, Bono, whom he had known in prison, landing a stable job as a garbage man (at a time when no one had thought of calling such workers “sanitation engineers”). At the start of the play, we find him busy constructing a fence in his backyard—a task to which he demands that his youngest son Cory give careful attention. In the opening scene, two conflicts are established: The first is that Troy may be in trouble at work for asking his foreman why Black workers were not allowed to drive the garbage trucks, but had to remain in back doing all of  the more difficult and unpleasant work. The second is that his son Cory is anxious to accept a Football scholarship to school, but Troy, the former ballplayer, does not want Cory to aim for a career as an athlete.

These conflicts reflect the theme of “fences” symbolized by the backyard fence which Troy is obsessed with completing. There is the fence that surrounds Troy at work, keeping him in the lowest level position. There is also his belief that he could not enter the major leagues as an athlete because of race prejudice, although Rose suggests the possibility that it was age (yet another “fence”) that stood in his way.

As the plot develops, and Wilson brings us deeper and deeper into lives of the Maxson family, especially the marriage of Troy and Rose, we learn of more and more metaphorical fences—both protective and limiting—that control the lives of this family and, perhaps, all families.

It is a beautiful play, richly emotional, rooted in Black culture, yet clearly universal. It is also a showcase for excellent acting, and that is certainly true in this production.

As Troy, Aldo Billingslea is riveting and complex. He seems bigger than life, but never untrue: a laughing, bellowing, frightened, talented, bullying, tearful, difficult, loving, giant of a man. As Rose, Margo Hall is the perfect foil. Initially self-effacing, we gradually discover and come to admire her extraordinary depth of character. As the younger son and ambitious athlete, Cory, J. Alphonse Nicholson provides his character with a very persuasive arc from angry adolescent to mature professional marine. As Troy’s friend Bono and older son Lyons, Guiesseppe Jones and Lance Gardner are also excellent, as is the young Kailynn Guidry as a little girl who complicates the family’s story. (The child is played by Anaiya Asomugha and Kailynn Guidry on alternate performances.)

Donald E. Lacy, Jr. shines in the role of Gabriel, a brain-damaged veteran who reveals unexpected depths.

“Fences” plays at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheatre in Orinda through July 31. For further information, click here. 

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Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.
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“Fences”  by August wilson, produced by California Shakespeare Theater. Director: Raelle Myrick-Hodges. Scenic Designer: Michael Locher. Costume Designer: Alina Bokovikova. Lighting Designer: Xavier Pierce. Sound Designer: Mikaal Sulaiman. Fight Director: Dave Maier. 

Cast:

Troy Maxson: Aldo Billingslea. Lyons: Lance Gardner. Rose: Margo Hall. Bono: Guiesseppe Jones. Gabriel: Donald E. Lacy, Jr. Cory: J. Alphonse Nicholson. Raynell: Anaiya Asomuga & Kailynn Guidry (alternative performances). 

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