"You got to take the crookeds with the straights.” The notion is a repeated piece of dialogue in director Eileen J. Morris’s excitingly insightful production of August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning play Fences. First spoken by blustery protagonist Troy Maxson as a way to explain his philosophy of weathering both the good and the bad turns in life, the pithy line could also refer to Morris’s unconventional slant on Wilson’s masterpiece.
Rather than taking the "straight" approach and focusing our energy on Troy, a deeply flawed but charismatic former Negro Leagues baseball star turned Pittsburgh garbageman who allows his disappointments and fears to poison those he loves, Morris employs something of a "crooked" tactic. It's Troy’s loving, wounded but ultimately spirited wife of 18 years, Rose, whose eyes Morris wants us to view the play through. What can often come across as a captivating one-man show with supporting players is instead turned into a duality in which we’re invited to experience both partners’ pain, struggle and coping skills, with thrilling results.
The time is the late 1950s, and Troy (a magnetic Alex Morris) seems as if he’s doing okay. He’s moved past his mother’s abandonment and his father’s violence, which forced him to flee his home at the age of 14. He’s done his time for the robbery that ended in murder, making a lifelong friend in lockup, Jim Bono (gracefully played by James West), and using his time in prison to improve his baseball skills. Sure, the color of his skin didn’t allow him to make it past the Negro Leagues once he was a free man, his race absolutely still holds him back, and hell, yeah, he’s bitter about it. Yes, he needs to look out for his brain-damaged, kooky, loose-cannon brother, Gabe (superlatively played with scene-stealing humor and pathos by Jason E. Carmichael), a war veteran who believes he chases hellhounds and speaks daily to Saint Peter. But Troy has a perfect wife in Rose (a twinkly-eyed Detria Ward, oozing warmth and the patience of a woman pushed almost too far), and he’s stood up to the racial inequalities at work and gotten himself promoted from lowly garbage dumper to driver.
On the surface, life appears happy enough. All Troy asks of life is to drunkenly spin his boastful and highly exaggerated stories in front of his modest house (a two-story, shabby but welcoming design by James V. Thomas) on Friday evenings with Bono, get frisky with Rose over the weekend, finally finish the fence he’s been promising to build around his house, swing his bat at a few balls and then go back to work on Monday. But an idyllic life is not in the cards for Troy thanks to his own misdoings.
His son Cory (a recalcitrant Gabriel Monroe) has a shot at a football scholarship and wants desperately to play, but Troy will have none of it. Remembering his own lost athletic dreams and being out of touch with the changing times, he crushes his son’s aspirations and orders Cory to stop playing, declaring, “White man ain’t gonna let you get anywhere with that football.” With a lighter touch, Troy wounds his easygoing but struggling other son Lyons (played with attractive breezy cool by Kendrick “Kayb” Brown”), a musician, by constantly brushing off invitations to come hear his jazz band play, thus diminishing Lyons’s accomplishments as well.
As cruel as it may seem, it’s not a stretch for us (and Rose) to understand the disappointment, fear and bitterness that underlie Troy’s harshness toward his sons, expressed in a "don’t end up like me" fashion. Of course, we flinch when Cory asks his father if he likes him and is met with paternal outrage over the desire to be liked rather than to be "done right by." Still, we know this berating once again comes from Troy’s desire to shield his son from potential future harm. But when Troy’s longing for what might have been results in infidelity (alluded to with increasing alarm by Bono in the first act), bringing another child into Troy’s life, our empathy hits a dead end.
It’s here that Morris’s focus on Rose cashes in. Thanks to Ward’s knockout performance and to staging that often has our eyes on her even when Troy is bombastically holding court on matters such as fighting death or meeting the devil, we’ve already spent a great deal of time contemplating matters from Rose’s point of view. We’ve seen her measured reactions when her husband fights with his sons. We’ve watched her pick and choose when to sass Troy and when to leave him be. We’ve understood that her love for him has come with compromises. And we’ve become acutely aware that even though Troy brings home the paycheck and is building a fence, Rose is the one who keeps everyone warm, dry, fed and together.
In other words, when Rose’s world is shattered by Troy’s betrayal, it cuts deep within us, as was demonstrated by the hoots and hollers from the audience at Troy’s half apology and the selfishly blunt excuses for his behavior. When Rose finally sheds the veil of politeness and unleashes her own anger and disappointment on Troy, our hoots and hollers turn to literal shouts of encouragement that only serve to strengthen the energy onstage.
In these charged moments, Troy and Rose finally stand on equal ground in their power dynamic. Both are hurt, angry, scared and wondering what comes next. Morris makes the most of the heightened emotion, freeing up Alex Morris and Ward to play to their barest vulnerabilities without apology. We’re disgusted with Troy’s misdeeds and shocked by Rose’s decision. It’s uncomfortable theater and it’s riveting.
But we’ve inhabited Rose’s world long enough now that we know her sensibility and calm strength will once again reign, though under markedly different circumstances. Troy’s metaphorical fence is built around his heart to shield him from life’s dissatisfactions, but Rose’s is built from a desire to bring everyone together, and we trust that her brand of strength and love is what it’s all about even as we wish better for her.
And that’s the beauty of Fences, the sixth play in Wilson's Century Cycle of ten plays that chronicle the 20th-century African-American experience by decade. In the moment, it’s an eight-year story about Troy and Rose. In the collective, it’s about African-American life as it straddles a time of change and growing liberation. But in the abstract, it’s about mankind. Wilson often said he didn’t write specifically for black or white audiences, but rather his work was about the black experience in America. “And contained within that experience, because it is a human experience,” he said, “are all universalities.”
The beauty of Morris’s production is that by opening up that experience more fully and allowing us to inhabit both Rose and Troy’s viewpoints, she lets us gain not only a stronger understanding of the story Wilson was trying to tell, but a greater understanding of the African-American experience and ultimately our own experiences with fear, disappointment and the fences we build and tear down.
Fences continues through February 28 at The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. For tickets, visit www.EnsembleHouston.com or call 713-520-0055. $23-$50
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