August Wilson's Fences may be the great American play on baseball, with a tragic hero who says things like "Death ain't nothing but a fastball on the outside corner'' and justifies his extramarital affair by likening it to stealing second base.
Not coincidentally, given its preoccupation with the national pastime, Fences is Wilson's most popular play. "It was his second play out of the gate, and I think it remains the most accessible to the mainstream theater audience,'' says Timothy Douglas, who is directing it for American Stage.
Fences is the latest installment in American Stage's project to produce all 10 of Wilson's plays that chronicle African-American life in the 20th century, one play for each decade, all but one set in Pittsburgh's Hill District, where the playwright grew up. It is the company's third foray into Wilson territory, after the 2007 production of Gem of the Ocean and last season's King Hedley II.
Set in 1957, Fences is about Troy Maxson, a onetime Negro League baseball star who now, at 53, works on a garbage truck. He's a flamboyant, larger-than-life figure, embittered about being born "too soon'' to play Major League Baseball, which didn't open up to black ballplayers until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
In the original Broadway production in 1987, James Earl Jones played Troy, and Fences became one of Wilson's biggest hits, winning the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for best play.
"Troy represents an Everyman gone wrong to a lot of black men from that era,'' says Kim Sullivan, who plays Troy's best friend, Jim Bono, in the play. "He's a guy who made it as an athlete, but his heyday passed him by and now he's settled into a humdrum existence, lifting and loading garbage. That story is accessible to a lot of black men. He breaks up his family. That story, unfortunately, repeats itself over and over in the black community. This is a microcosm of the black community.''
Fences is loaded with insightful bits and pieces of information about baseball from an African-American perspective, such as Troy's complaint to his teenage son, Cory, that the hometown Pittsburgh Pirates aren't giving their black Puerto Rican outfielder Roberto Clemente a chance. Clemente is now in the Hall of Fame.
In 1957, when Wilson was 12 years old, the Milwaukee Braves galvanized baseball by winning the National League pennant and then knocking off the New York Yankees in the World Series. Wilson worked the Braves into his play some 30 years later in dialogue between father and son. Of course, Hank Aaron, the team's great slugger, is mentioned, but so is another black player, Wes Covington, a young outfielder. Only a diehard fan would remember Covington, who played a small but vital part in the Braves' championship season.
"That's typical of August,'' Sullivan says. "He had a real observant eye for the nuances, for the oddball, for people who had potential.''
Wilson probably modeled Troy on a combination of African-American ballplayers, including Josh Gibson, "the black Babe Ruth,'' who played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays, teams the playwright would have heard about as a kid. Sullivan says Troy reminds him of Ted "Double Duty'' Radcliffe, a Negro League star who never got a shot at the big leagues.
"It was very clever of August to use baseball as the metaphor because this was the sport that we struggled the hardest to get into,'' Sullivan says. "It's the one that barred us to the point that we made up our own league. And through making up our own league, we found out that we were better than a lot of the white teams.''
Sullivan, who lives in Brooklyn, was also in the American Stage productions of Gem of the Ocean and King Hedley II, and he has particularly good memories of playing Solly Two Kings in Gem. He has been in eight of Wilson's plays and would run into the playwright from time to time in New York.
"I would see him often at the West Bank Cafe, an actors' bar on 42nd Street,'' he says. "August would hold court there.''
Wilson saw Sullivan in several productions of his plays across the country, and the playwright was always friendly, but the actor maintained a respectful distance. "I always called him Mr. Wilson,'' he says. "I never got close enough to call him August.''
In Fences, Troy's resentment toward the white society that denied him opportunity drives the play. The old ballplayer turned garbage man is so bitter that he won't allow Cory to take a football scholarship to college. Instead, he tells his son, get a trade, learn how to fix cars or build houses, and know your place.
"How does it affect you to have someone say to you that even though you're qualified, even though you're talented, you can't do this because you're colored?'' says Evander Duck Jr., who is playing Troy. "That's Troy's big angst. He says all along to his son, 'The white man ain't gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway.' He ends up laying a lot of heavy stuff on Cory because of what he experienced when he was coming along.''
With a 19-year-old son himself, Duck says, laughing, "I don't have to stretch at all. I tend to have a fondness for the scenes where Troy is interacting with his son. Despite all of Troy's flaws, there are some father-son lessons going on there.''
A stocky, barrel-chested actor from New Jersey, Duck is playing Troy for the third time and has grown a beard for the role. He says he can't think about Jones' iconic performance.
"I can't be James Earl Jones,'' he says. "I can only focus on doing the moment-to-moment work, listening to the characters in the scene with me, and responding to them as Evander's Troy would respond to them.''
Director Douglas was in the room when Jones rehearsed his performance as Troy, when Fences had a pre-Broadway production at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985. Then a 25-year-old drama student at Yale, he understudied the role of Gabriel, Troy's brain-damaged brother.
"I sat and watched, though I did go on in a preview,'' says Douglas, whose most vivid memory of that experience is the influence that the late Lloyd Richards, who directed Fences and other Wilson plays, had on the playwright.
"Lloyd helped August find his craft,'' he says. "At that point, August was more poet than playwright. All the language was fantastic, but it wasn't moving the story forward. Lloyd was a great editor. Fences was a full third longer in that first incarnation than it is now.''
Douglas has extensive Wilson credentials, having directed six of the 10 plays. In 2005, he directed the premiere, at Yale Rep, of the final one, Radio Golf, set in 1997. The playwright died at 60 of liver cancer a few months later.
"If August knew he was sick, he didn't tell anyone,'' says Douglas, who had his hands full with Radio Golf because Wilson was still writing the play as rehearsals began. Not until late in the process did he turn in the last scene.
"That was the first time a director in the 10-play cycle went into rehearsal without a script,'' Douglas says. "I was directing a play whose ending I did not know. There were changes in the script two days before opening. The actors were going nuts. And here I was telling August Wilson he had to stop writing.''
Radio Golf went on to have its Broadway premiere in 2007, but by then Douglas had been replaced as director by Kenny Leon. "I'm not unique,'' Douglas says. "If you know the history of Wilson plays, people come and go quickly. I do feel honored, in retrospect, that August respected me enough to sit down and tell me over lunch that he was letting me go.''
For Douglas, the African elements in Wilson's plays have yet to be fully explored. "I think that now it's time to really mine all of August's nods to what is specifically African in African-American culture,'' he says, even in Fences, which is one of the few Wilson plays that doesn't have direct references to African mysticism or slavery.
"For instance,'' the director says, "you can look at Troy's extramarital relationship as morally corrupt and unsound, but if you look at many of the West African cultures, the chief has many wives. And if you look at nature, as opposed to a Christian moral construct, if you're looking at man's innate nature, it's natural.''
Wilson always insisted that his plays be directed by black directors, which made this year's Broadway revival of Joe Turner's Come and Gone controversial. It was the most prominent production to be led by a white director, Bartlett Sher, best known for directing the long-running revival of South Pacific and his work at the Metropolitan Opera. The show was a commercial and critical success - President Barack Obama and his wife attended a performance - but Douglas thinks Wilson would not have been happy.
"I saw it, and I felt that there were several layers of the play missing,'' Douglas says. "I feel I understood what Bart Sher saw in the play, and the choices that he made, and I absolutely defend him as a colleague. I think he's very gifted. But he interpreted Joe Turner in such a way that it expanded beyond what was the authentic black experience that August was writing about. I believe Bart intuitively felt the African mysticism in the play but interpreted it as magic realism. If it were magic realism, then he made brilliant choices, but it's not.''
The bottom line for Douglas is that black directors still have a lot to say about Wilson's plays. "It wasn't that he felt you couldn't have cross-cultural experiences, but there is not exactly a glut of August Wilson productions directed by black directors,'' he says. "Let's have black people tell their own stories first, and then we can talk about mixing it up.''
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.
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Director Timothy Douglas, on working with August Wilson. Douglas directed the permiere of Wilson's last play, Radio Golf:
"He was exceedingly accessible. Anyone could walk up and talk to him. Great sense of humor. And he'd tell stories, that's what he did, he told stories. While working on Radio Golf, whenever I had questions, he would always start by telling a story. It took me a while to figure out that he was actually answering my question. But he never answered directly. He would tell a story.''
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If you go
Fences, the play by August Wilson, has previews today, Wednesday and Thursday at American Stage, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. It opens Friday and runs through Oct. 11. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday. $26-$45. "Pay what you can'' performances are today and Sept. 29. (727) 823-7529; americanstage.org.