August Wilson premiered Fences at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985 with the hope of answering those admirers and critics who, while charmed by the poet-cum-playwright's dramatic turns with Jitney and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, longed for more sophisticated character development and skillful plotting. Directed by Lloyd Richards and vivified by actors James Earl Jones and Mary Alice in the central roles of Troy and Rose Maxson, Fences proved a demonstrative rejoinder to Wilson's critics. Indeed, the play elicited praise for Wilson's nuanced rendering of black domestic life in the US before the civil rights movement that at once repeated, revised, and riffed on key moments and movements in African American history. Fences subsequently moved to Broadway in 1987, which brought additional acclaim, including the Tony Award for Best Play, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and recognition for Wilson as one of the finest playwrights making and remaking myths for the contemporary theatre.
More than two decades after its New York premier, a long-overdue revival of Fences arrived on Broadway in a limited engagement at the Cort Theatre. Directed by Kenny Leon, a frequent interpreter of Wilson's texts, this new production of Fences affirmed both the timelessness and timeliness of the play. Leon's production simultaneously foregrounded Wilson's poetic language, beautifully drawn characters, and exacting dramaturgy, while exploiting and resisting the sentimentality that, at times, arrests the text. Countering the cynicism so [End Page 123]
Click for larger view
View full resolution
[End Page 124]
Click for larger view
View full resolution
prevalent in our contemporary moment, Leon's production accentuated the play's tonalities of forgiveness, redemption, and renewal. In so doing, it reinvigorated for its contemporary audience the critical importance of attending to unfinished business from the past. Leon's reverential, affirmative approach, to be sure, gave Fences an immediacy that resonated powerfully in the present.
Undoubtedly, performances by Denzel Washington (Troy) and Viola Davis (Rose) significantly boosted the potency of the revival. In Troy, Wilson crafts a formidable, but also contradictory figure. Washington coupled charm and the megawatt smile that he has used so effectively in his films with an assured sense of hubris, thereby making Troy both appealing and appalling. He negotiated the character's multiple identities—loyal friend, doting husband, intimidating patriarch, and unapologetic philanderer—with ease and dexterity. This virtuosic movement imbued Troy with a psychological weight that shifted the entire production beyond a purely emotional key. Indeed, Washington's sharp performance eloquently revealed Troy's constant battles against the pull of death and self-destruction, which, in turn, motivated his drive to live and create art (manifested in storytelling). Troy's survival depends on these creative acts. His relationship to Rose, in fact, hinges on his imaginative retellings of past events and her emending the most egregious embellishments. Washington's ability to sustain this dynamic throughout the performance gave new life to the themes so central to Wilson's dramaturgy: namely, honoring the inextricable relationship of the past to the present, of forgiveness to revitalization, and, strikingly, of loss to creativity.
Washington, of course, had an equally skilled scene partner in Davis. A veteran of several productions of Wilson's plays, including her Tony Award–winning performance as Tonya in 2001's King Hedley II, Davis's rendering of Rose was as joyful as it was soulful. She filled the character with an unwavering sense of dignity and agency that highlighted anew Rose's strength and grace—her multidimensionality. This perhaps resonated most profoundly in the revival during the play's final scene. Recounting for Corey the life she wanted for herself and for her family, Davis's Rose spoke not with regret or disappointment, but instead with excitement about the possibilities of living fully and freely for the first time. In that moment, Rose clearly forgave Troy and, in so doing, embraced...