Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Review of Fences

TCR - There are rare moments in theatergoing when one sees a play that is engrossing, moving and so thought provoking that you leave the performance not only thinking about the play, but how it relates to your life.

At the age of 11, I experienced this when I saw a production of the ninth part of August Wilson's ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle, King Headly II, in St. Paul. On Friday night, I had the same experience upon seeing Theatre Cedar Rapids' production of the sixth part of Wilson's play series, Fences.

It might just be Wilson's writing that allows for such an event to occur. But Leslie Charipar's direction and the talented cast of seven African-American actors make this production fulfill its potential.

While the play has the central conflict of segregation, it is presented in such a manner that one does not need to be of a different ethnicity or from the 1950s to understand the problems segregation causes for the characters.

This may be because of the influence it has on Troy (Doug Jackson). Troy was a very talented baseball player, but by the time Jackie Robinson was allowed to play, the central character was in his 40s. This causes him to react severely to his son playing football, which will enable Cory (Brandon M. McDaniel) to attend college. In fact, he doesn't even want his son to play football. Why? He couldn't make a living in baseball because of color; he doesn't want his son to make the same mistake.

Fences is ultimately a universal play. In act two, Bono (Kobi Reese) talks of fences being built to either keep people out or to keep people in. We all feel a need to protect people, but Troy's desire to protect his son and his mentally disabled brother, Gabriel (Vershawn Ashanti Young), tears the family apart.

While the cast is magnificent, the two standout performances are given by Janie M. Jones-Adams as Troy's wife, Rose, and by Young. Jones-Adams' performance in Act One provides for comic relief in necessary parts, but is filled with motherly tenderness over the matters of Cory playing football and Gabriel's well-being. She really shines in Act Two where she gives a heartbreaking performance aided by the body language she employs.

Young portrays Gabriel with a wide-eyed ebullience and child-like innocence that makes us hang on to every word. His exaggerated hand gestures when talking about St. Peter and his book grab your attention and focuses it properly. He also talks so matter-of-factly about things such as Aunt Jemima making flapjacks for him that I could believe him. This performance has its high point when the frustrated Gabriel breaks out into a dance reminiscent of African tribal dances, causing me to wonder what exactly was going to occur next.

Jackson's Troy is a very complex character that has a defined and constantly deepening portrayal. At moments he is joking around, at other moments he is a gifted storyteller, at other times he is a frightening yet frightened person. He is a man affected by society and what that creates is a layered human being.

One of the show's finest moments is a scene between Troy and Cory, who asks why his dad doesn't like him. McDaniel's adolescent smart-alecky attitude and posture gives this scene humor, but his father's confrontation gives one a feeling of uneasiness.

Rounding out the cast is Kory Bassett as the musician, or slacker, son Lyons; Reese as the good friend and co-worker Bono, and Mekela Spence as Raynell, the young daughter. Bassett is frequently the calmest person on stage. What is incredible about his portrayal of Lyons is that he seems very calm throughout his father's berating of him for not having a “real job.” Even when he is snippy, it is still cool, as though there is something not being sensed.

Reese not only shows the role of the person that Troy jokes around and drinks with, but also tries to be the voice of reason in his life. His interpretation of the character makes it no wonder that Bono has been friends with Troy for so long.
And while Spence is on stage for only one scene, her performance as the character least affected by the conflicts in the play gives a glimpse of hope.

The two things that seem to aid this production are Charipar's direction and Bret Gothe's minimalist set. The stage has an unfinished white fence, a spectral tree with a baseball hanging from it, and the exterior of the house. The house, however, is simply a white frame, screen door and a porch. The most decorated piece is the fence and this allows us to focus on the action and the actual play.

As for the direction, the audience witnesses a very natural feeling portrait of the family. And the subtleness of the actor's emotions is what makes so many scenes electric.

Throughout the play, Rose and Bono tell Troy that times are changing. What Fences shows us is what occurs when we hold on to old views in a changing world. And it is indeed a powerful emotion.

--Monica Reida

Monica Reida has acted in five plays in Waterloo, worked on numerous productions in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area, directed a staged reading, and has been revising and writing her first play, Life After Death, for the past two years. She will be attending DePaul University in the fall to pursue her B.F.A. in theatre arts and journalism. She writes for the Cedar Falls High School Tiger Hi-Line and blogs at

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