At a time when the national conversation is brimming with talk of barriers — persistent racial, social and economic divides; loud proposals for walled-in borders — August Wilson's "Fences" is likely to feel a little more relevant than usual when Everyman Theatre opens a revival of the play this week.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama and Tony Award for best play in 1987, "Fences" provides an incisive look at an African-American family in 1957 Pittsburgh. One of the 10 Wilson works counted as part of his "Pittsburgh Cycle" (nine are set in that city's Hill District), the work hits themes of race, class and more.
"For our 25th anniversary season, I wanted to celebrate American classics," says Everyman artistic director Vincent Lancisi, "and 'Fences' deserves to be right alongside 'Death of a Salesman' and 'A Streetcar Named Desire' [which will be staged later this season]. I chose the play because I feel like it speaks to so many people about the value of family, chasing the American dream, and whether everyone is included in the American dream."
The 2015-2016 lineup at Everyman was pretty much set before racial unrest boiled over in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody.
"Since the uprising, doing 'Fences' seems more prescient," Lancisi says. "It's almost like I chose it to be a salve for a part of Baltimore that feels invisible. I didn't. But this play says all the right things at the right time."
The central character is Troy Maxson, a role originated by James Earl Jones. The 53-year-old Troy works for the Pittsburgh sanitation department, where blacks can pick up the garbage but not drive the trucks. Troy is determined to change that. He's had enough experience with being held back.
After release from prison (there was a murder, but it's complicated), he had a successful stint playing baseball in the Negro Leagues, at a time when there was no hope for a black man to get into the majors. That the situation has changed since then only gives Troy another layer of resentment. His outlook does not soften when he learns that his youngest son has won a college football scholarship.
After 18 years of marriage to the dependable Rose, who wants Troy to build a fence around their modest house, he strays. The ramifications from that action provide additional fuel for what is, in many ways, an epic drama. Troy is right out of Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, but with contemporary twists. Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon, who guided the 2010 Broadway revival of "Fences" starring Denzel Washington as Troy and Viola Davis as Rose, has described Troy as "Othello, Macbeth, Willy Loman combined."
Alan Bomar Jones, the Ohio-born and –based actor who makes his Everyman debut in what he calls the "mammoth role" of Troy, finds much to savor in "Fences."
"It opens a window into this particular black family's ideas about the world, the problems of 1957, the racial tension," Jones says.
Performing such a work now in Baltimore cannot help but strike timely chords.
"'Fences' relates to so many different aspects of the African-American community," says Baltimore School for the Arts alum Brayden Simpson, who makes his professional debut in this production playing Troy and Rose's son, Cory.
Joy Jones, making her Everyman debut as Rose, gives an example.
"One of the things shown in the play is how the criminal justice system impacts various characters, how a [prison] record can change the paths of life," says the Washington-born and –based Jones. "These [characters] are imperfect, but they're decent people. They're homeowners. They're making their way. Rose is someone who has a strong faith, which gets stronger. She is not the most fun lady. But she keeps a clean, decent home. She maintains a structure for Troy."
The structure Wilson provides for all of the vivid characters in "Fences" is fortified by his distinctive language, which propels extraordinary monologues in the play, especially for Troy. The character relates powerful stories along the way — about his early life and his determined duels with Death.
"When I was telling some people about doing 'Fences,' someone said to me: 'Oh, it's just a bunch of speeches.' I took that as a call to arms," says Joy Jones. "I am using everything in my actor's toolbox to make sure that's not the case."
Alan Jones, 59, who has performed in nine of the 10 Pittsburgh Cycle plays over the years, picks up on that point.
"Wilson was a poet first," he says. "In a good performance, you feel that [Troy is] telling great stories, not giving speeches Any actor interested in doing 'Fences' needs to read all of Wilson's works. You need to see the writing and the cadence Wilson has. There is iambic pentameter in it. You can fall right into the rhythm, the sing-song way he has."
One word that peppers Wilson's writing isn't quite sing-song-y. It starts with an "n."
"It pops up almost as commonly as 'I' and 'you,'" says Simpson.
Alan Jones takes it all in stride.
"If there's a black actor uncomfortable with saying the n-word, he shouldn't do August Wilson," Alan Jones says. "That's the language used by a certain class, and it's used mostly in an endearing way."
Joy Jones notes that the word isn't uttered by Rose, who "casts a negative glance at Troy when he uses it. [Today,] in the broader culture, there's a discussion about who gets to say it. Everyone feels some kind of way about it," she says. "It has been interesting in rehearsals. Our director [Clinton Turner Davis], who is African-American, says it; the Caucasian crew does not say it, even when giving us lines."
Simpson, a New York University grad who just turned 24, first read 'Fences' in high school and has wanted to play Cory ever since. He finds a key to the role in the way the character speaks.
"Cory has only one metaphor," Simpson says. "Everything else is sharp and fast, like a punch. Troy is all metaphor. Clinton told us that 'Fences' is an opera. I hear that now."
Like many an opera, complex, volatile relationships are involved. Troy is at the center — as husband and lover (the other woman does not appear in the play); father (in addition to Cory, a son from a previous marriage is a significant presence); brother (Troy's younger sibling is a war veteran with psychological scars); and friend.
The conflict between Troy and Cory runs particularly deep. The issue of the football scholarship, the chance for Cory to advance ("A young black man able to go to college in 1957 — that's massive," Simpson says), proves explosive.
"I don't see Troy as being a bad person at all," says Alan Jones. "I don't play Troy as jealous of Cory. He's protective. He would hate for Cory to get his hopes up and be crushed, the way Troy was. He's a product of his environment and of his family. He turned out to be like his own father. He feels everything he is doing is correct. After 15 years in prison, he brought the prison life home, a life that says, 'I'm the warden, you're going to be my prisoners.'"
Troy might want to keep everyone else in, but he feels free to escape.
"He has a midlife crisis," Jones says. "He has been with Rose for 18 years. He has probably made love the same way, brought home the bacon the same way all that time. When he meets someone else, it's a way for him to create a whole new man."
Adds Joy Jones: "The man Rose helped to create."
That man, and his unflinching views on everything and everybody, make for a drama that has firmly held the stage for three decades.
"It's clearly a play people want to see," Lancisi says. "We've had the largest presales in the history of Everyman, and we're already talking about the possibility of extending the run."
If you go
After a Free Fall Baltimore performance 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, and preview performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, August Wilson's "Fences" opens at 8 p.m. Friday and runs through Nov. 22 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. Tickets are $10 to $60. Call 410-752-2208, or go to everymantheatre.org.