Fences At the Cloverdale Playhouse

By on 30 April, 2018 in Amanda Burbank, Art, Fun with 0 Comments

By Melissa Tubbs

The Cloverdale Playhouse’s production of August Wilson’s play Fences opened in Montgomery the same weekend as the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This is a momentous moment for our city, a call to confront the horrors of the past and to push forward towards change.

Wilson’s plays have been awarded multiple Pulitzer Prizes for their portrayal of the African-American experience during different decades of American history. The entire ensemble cast, directed by prominent local historian Georgette Norman, is full of passion for their roles. I know if I say that I cried, readers are going to assume I’m just an overly emotional person, but I’m not the only audience member who was visibly moved by the tremendously powerful community theater production of this play.

Norman, who served as the first director of Troy University’s Rosa Parks Museum and is now serving on the Alabama African-American Civil Rights Heritage Sites Consortium, believes in the preservation of history and its power to provoke thought, discussion and change. This award-winning play addresses our nation’s history: the changing race relations from the protagonist Troy’s childhood at the turn of the century to the 1950s when pervasive hate and injustices were still a part of their everyday lives. This is the background, however, for a story about personal history and how we are influenced by family, society and events, and how we go on to influence others. “You got to take the crookeds with the straights,” Troy says. His son Lyons later repeats not only his words but some of his mistakes.

The characters build fences to protect themselves — from pain, and from each other. There is a patchwork wall opposite the stage made of bricks, sheet metal and plywood; our fences are similarly built from many materials. The playbill suggests memories, disappointments and frustrations. The building of an actual fence is an effective element woven throughout this stage production. The metaphor can’t be forgotten as characters take turns sawing wood for the fence. Audience members watch as the cast begins coming and going through the gate once the fence is finally built.

The story isn’t one without hope. Another visual metaphor used is that of seeds and blooms. Rose says that she planted her feelings, wants, needs and dreams – her seeds – in Troy, but they couldn’t bloom in him. In contrast, we see Gabriel continue to give roses to Rose, during moments of despair. He is a symbol of spiritual innocence and hope played with exuberance and tenderness by La’Brandon Tyre. The Cloverdale Playhouse even puts real dirt on the stage for Troy’s daughter Raynell to touch expectantly in the final scene. She is waiting for her seeds to bloom and we believe that they will. Raynell, played on opening night by Brooke Bennett (also played by Breanna Bennett), is a symbol of new beginnings and hope, herself. Bennett touched hearts as she honored the best of her complex father, and even his father before that, through leading her brother in the passed-down song, breaking down fences her brother had erected in his heart.  Observant audience members will notice that for the curtain call the cast no longer heeds the boundaries of the fence.

Even though the play is set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, this modern southern audience clearly related to the family’s story as it was being told. Audience members were allowed to be friends and neighbors witnessing the drama intimately, thanks to the creative set design by J. Scott Grinstead. The action takes place on the family’s porch and in their yard and the audience is seated on either side of the yard in the “alley.”

The alley that we all shared was often filled with laughter, even in the midst of the retelling of traumatic events. Troy’s irreverent approach to dealing with injustice, the “devil,” personified Death, and other weighty matters was executed with ease by Ronald McCall, who made a very difficult character oftentimes charming. He allowed you to see glimpses of why Rose fell in love with this embittered and destructive man.

McCall plays a believably volatile drunk, switching fluidly from flamboyant storyteller and unabashed flirt to a steely-eyed, sharp-tongued father with barely contained rage. McCall embraces this flawed hero, who at one point asks his 17-year-old son “What law is there sayin’ I got to like you?” He goes on to explain “Now don’t you go through life worrying about whether somebody like you or not! You best be makin’ sure that they’re doin’ right by you! You understand what I’m sayin’?” Troy isn’t worrying about whether somebody likes him or not and McCall understands this about his character. Even if the audience doesn’t know if they like him, they are moved by the man’s unrelenting, unapologetic passion.

Yvette Jones-Smedley’s performance allows Troy’s wife Rose to be a grounding force in the narrative. Her patience with Troy and gentle, at times teasing rebukes during the first act reinforce that the couple has shared nearly two decades of love. The chemistry between them feels natural and sincere, which makes the betrayal to come more poignant. Rose remains steadfast, even as changes in her relationship with her husband change the way her strength manifests. Jones-Smedley navigates the depth of this emotional transformation, the growth and independence of her character, with dignity and confidence.

Kendrick Golson, as Cory, and Naamann Jackson, as Lyons, play two very different sons contrasting Troy, one just happy to find a reason to get up in music and the other dreaming of a future through sports. Both sons insist that times have changed since their father was in the Negro baseball league, but Troy believes that his sons who don’t understand the past aren’t prepared for the reality of the future. Golson’s performance is earnest and emotional, ranging from longing for parental approval to fear to adolescent arrogance to rage. Jackson has a more subtle part, coming into the story with his fences already in place. He plays Lyons as genial but distant with the underlying tension necessary to the role.

Joe C. Colvin, Jr., plays Troy’s best friend Bono, who is audience for his stories and a witness to the man’s family unraveling. Colvin’s subtle shifts in attitude towards his longtime friend lend gravity to the changes in Troy as he makes choices that increasingly isolate him from his family. As “neighbors” who can’t help but overhear what is happening in the Maxson household, we want to, like Bono, interject ourselves into Troy’s life and say, “No!” before it’s too late.

Troy is not the sort of man to have regrets or make apologies, but he left behind a legacy, in his own family and in those who witness his story, of people who stop to consider where they came from, who they’ve become, and where they want to be going. Instead of putting up fences to things in or keep them out, they are planting seeds for a better future.

Find your place in the alley. Shows are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30, and Sundays at 2 and May 3 through 6. The play is recommended for ages 14 and up. General admission tickets are $20, and student tickets are $10, available at cloverdaleplayhouse.org or through the box office at 334-262-1530.

Amanda Burbank is an observer, savorer, poet, artist, mother, wife, and lover of beauty and life. Unexpected events found her family living nestled in the deep south woods within a family home built by her great grandfather. From there, she works as a freelance writer and photographer. Her heart is to live a life of acceptance and perhaps help others to see beauty in the unlikely through well crafted words and photographs of lovely ordinary everyday moments. https://www.instagram.com/mandyburbank/

 

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