How appropriate it was that both the movie “42” and the CPCC Theatre production of “Fences” opened Friday. They’re opposite sides of the same story: A film about a black baseball player in the 1940s who overcomes bigotry and breaks the color barrier to become a Hall of Famer, and a play about a black baseball player in the pre-World War II era who’s beaten down by bigotry and passes old fears and hatreds to his son years later.
The plot of this play may seem foreign to us today: No one now would tell his son to turn down a college football scholarship because he was certain to face racial discrimination. But the subjects of the script are eternal ones: loyalty and betrayal, jeopardized love, parent-child conflicts.
August Wilson made his name with this drama in 1987, winning his only Tony and first of two Pulitzers. (The second went to “The Piano Lesson,” which CPCC opened three years ago this week. Corlis Hayes directed both here.)
“Fences” was the third play written in a cycle that finally stretched to 10, depicting experiences of black Americans across each decade of the 20th century. As he often did, Wilson mixed realism and metaphor in “Fences”: It has room for both earthy harangues and the presence of a holy fool, an ex-soldier named Gabriel who is damaged by a head injury and totes a symbolic trumpet. (Rebecca Primm’s set reflects that duality: The family lives in a humbly realistic home, while the windows belonging to unseen neighbors reveal Romare Bearden-style collages.)
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All the characters revolve around Troy Maxson, whose life in a black Pittsburgh neighborhood has left him uncomfortable in many ways. He broods on his thwarted athletic past, drinks too much, dallies with a mistress who will eventually have a child (his third, all by different mothers.) Troy doesn’t know how to help Gabe, his younger brother, and exploits him for the federal compensation he receives.
Now his son, Cory, comes home with a big dream and the offer of that scholarship. Troy explodes, allegedly because he’s trying to save his son the pain he endured. But maybe he can’t bear to see anyone happy and hopeful while he is not.
Director Hayes draws good performances from actors too seldom seen in this city.
Lillie Ann Oden’s sturdy Rose finally blossoms after 17 years in Troy’s stifling shadow. James Lee Walker II makes Gabe not a drifty dreamer (as he can be played) but a vital force determined to storm heaven’s gates for Troy; Branden Cook, a football player at Butler High until he gave up sports for acting, knows and shows us just what Cory feels.
Calvin Walton finds many colors in the chameleonic Troy: He’s charming and amiable, obtuse and defensive, violent and foolish, even pathetic.
James Earl Jones won a Tony in this part 25 years ago, and I saw him give that towering performance. At its climax, after a character delivered a brutal truth to Troy, Jones cast his eyes toward the balcony as if seeking answers from heaven.
“Don’t look up here, fool!” blurted the woman next to me, so drawn into the show that she didn’t seem to realize she’d interacted with it. At its best, “Fences” has the power to suck you in that way, and it drew the CPCC audience to its core with the same inexorable pull.