August Wilson’s shocking drama “Fences” opened with a home run last weekend in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mitchell Theatre.
“Fences” garnered one of esteemed playwright August Wilson's two Pulitzer Prizes, the other being “The Piano Lesson.” Wilson said in a 1996 Playbill interview that he wrote his plays based on his life experiences of “love, honor, duty and betrayal.” That passion was palpable in the text and delivery of the script in the March 5 performance.
Director Dr. Baron Kelly — the artistic director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Theatre Department — fully grasped the message Wilson wanted to be shared through “Fences.” In his director’s note, Kelly writes that the characters in the play struggle to find their place in the world, and Wilson “puts forth a call to know and accept the past and to find in it the strength to go forward.”
Kelly continues by saying that this is a timely production as limits on the education of race and discrimination around the country are expanding. Kelly ends this section noting, “In his time, ahead of his time for all time, August Wilson shares history we cannot allow to disappear but must remain on our stages. Wilson’s plays are a vital encapsulation of Black history and contemporary life.”
Never being allowed into the MLB, never having the perfect relationship with his sons and never being satisfied with his life, Troy Maxson — the show's main character — had many dreams, but the only one he achieved was his nightmare. Finally accepting death after decades of tempting fate and fighting the devil, Troy evokes the struggle of finding fulfillment in one’s duties, rather than goals that seem unattainable.
The addition of fence parts throughout the play supports the notion of separation. The Maxson family was not only breaking on the inside but became increasingly distinct from the outside world as well. Good friend Bono and son Lyons came over less frequently as the fence was built, and the fear of losing to others became the driving force behind Troy’s interactions.
Kelly also played a role in the cast, portraying Troy’s brother Gabriel alongside three other professional actors. Alphaeus Green Jr. played Troy Maxson while C. Julian White acted as Jim Bono and Burgess Byrd brought the audience’s favorite Rose Maxson to life. Watching this performance felt like peeking through the fence hole to a broken yet loyal family. The cast gave gut wrenching performances, so much so that the audience did not want to cheer for Green because of how well he depicted the role of the jealous and selfish Troy.
The audience audibly reacted to plot revelations and certain pieces of dialogue between the characters people were rooting for and against. Whether it was a gasp or the exclamation of “You tell him, Rose,” it was evident this production had the audience on the edge of their seats from the moment they entered the theater.
The beautiful set deserves praise for its detail and thoughtfulness. The cracks in the Maxson home serve as both a representation of the state of America at the time and a foreshadowing of what is to come in the play. Large and obvious, yet ignored the entire time to instead focus on the fence between what is and is not owned by the Maxsons, the cracks told an impactful story all on their own.
Although many professionals worked to make this production, UW-Madison senior theatre major Noah Mustapha Kohn-Dumbuya took the stage as Lyons. As a new member of the theatre community, Kohn-Dumbuya knew “Fences'' would require a lot of work.
“Being told that I would be working with professionals was very nerve wracking,” said Kohn-Dumbuya. “I met with [Kelly] every morning at 7:30 and we would be together for like two hours rehearsing my lines. And then after, I would go to work or class, and then I would go straight to rehearsals.”
Kohn-Dumbuya is thankful for the opportunity to work with professionals, despite the intensity of the process.
“[The cast have] been the best mentors ever,” said Kohn-Dumbuya. “They've helped me along the way, giving me great advice.”
Kohn-Dumbuya hopes the audience learns as much as he did from this important production and finds this representation of a Black family serves as a good way for people to learn about the history and dynamics of Black culture.
If you want to catch this production, strike quick because tickets for the last performance on March 10 are limited. You can find tickets at Campus Arts Ticketing.