Fences, play in two acts by August Wilson, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1987. It was the second in Wilson’s series of plays depicting African American life in the 20th century. Sydney Theatre Company produce it in 2023.
The protagonist of Fences is Troy Maxson, who had been an outstanding baseball player at a time when the major leagues were closed to black players; he bitterly resents his lost opportunities. An ex-convict as well, Troy is now a garbage collector who struggled to hold the job. He is married to Rose and is the father of a teenager named Cory. Though he loves his son, he feuds continually with him and refuses to permit him to accept a football scholarship to college. An emotional, hard-drinking man, Troy ranges from tyrannical fury to delicacy as his preconceived ideas are challenged.
Playing at the handsome new Wharf theatre this revival reminds us of what a pleasure it is to sit with a solid American family drama; a classic. Its clever dialogue, fully developed characters, at least three genuine gasp-out-loud moments from a rapt audience are just some of the reasons to see this STC production.
Director Shari Sebbens has assembled a terrific cast. Bert LaBonté as a sensational Troy and Zara Newman as heart-breaking wife Rose capture the wit, beauty, and tragedy of this story. Set mostly in 1957, a landmark year for the Civil Rights Movement, the play dramatises much of a community caught between a violent and oppressive past and the possibility of a brighter future. Newman and LaBonté bring significant experience and insight into these pivotal roles. Some outstanding moments include the set-piece monologues (from Troy) about death, the violent past and (from Rose): “I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams…and I buried them inside you. I planted a seed and watched and prayed over it. I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn't take me no eighteen years to find out the soil was hard and rocky, and it wasn't never gonna bloom.” Perfection!
Exciting to see some new faces on stage and kudos to a captivating Markus Hamilton as foil and friend to Troy, Mr Jim Bono. A tribute to the fine writing and depiction of Bono is that it’s tragically clear from the very first scene that Bono is trying curb Troy’s wandering eye. Troy's promotion to driver separates them at work, and Troy's betrayal of Rose separates them on a personal level. Hamilton subtly plays the gradual loss of a friend with dignity and it is so satisfying (and very sad - take some tissues!)
Damon Manns, as older son Lyons, is suitably dashing and - in a play full of dreams – he makes a real connection with the audience as the passionate and ambitious jazz musician. Cory, the teenage son of Rose and Troy, (played by Darius Williams) handles the inevitable conflicts with his father with maturity. My personal favourite was Dorian Nkono’s fine portrayal of Uncle Gabriel. Soothsayer, fool, scapegoat, a damaged man.
The climax of the play rests on the successful portrayal of Gabriel and Nkono delivers a home run! (I haven’t mentioned the plethora of baseball images along with the fencing metaphors that pepper the text…). An extremely satisfying moment where – as audience – you want to hold your breath and let the moment exist for as long as possible, and on the other hand hit that applause with the enthusiasm the production deserves.
Unsettling and charged sound from Brendon Boney setting time and place and underlining all the edgier themes. Exquisite costume design from Jeremy Allen. These costumes are another star of this show. Shari Sebbens (director) has again demonstrated assured taste in her approach and has clearly and sensitively guided this searing drama into life to inspire a contemporary audience. Getting out of the way is a lesson that all good directors must learn. Sebbens demonstrates this wisdom and much more! Recommended.