Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences is one of August Wilson’s plays about the African-American experience of a divided America. Officially the country was “separate but equal”, but under the surface it was a well-known fact that rules were different for those whose skin was black.
Troy Maxson was once a talented athlete with the hopes and dreams of making it big in a world that couldn’t see past the colour of his skin. Having been robbed of his dreams, he works as a rubbish collector, trying to fulfil his duty as a man, husband and father. But broken dreams taint and eat away at the joy of family life, and Troy finds himself clinging unto memories and old grudges. He desperately tries to maintain and protect the few pieces of himself and his domestic life that he cherishes, but ends up suffocating the people around him. The pressure to fulfil his duty and fight against the feeling of being a failure causes him to violate the family bond by cheating on his wife, neglecting his war-damaged brother and driving away his son. Building a fence around the house suddenly symbolises his desperate attempt to keep his loved ones inside, ending in shutting them out and isolating himself from them.
Lenny Henry, known for his Othello and The Comedy of Errors, inhabits Troy’s colourful personality, and delivers a vibrant and edgy performance that’s always one step ahead of his fellow cast and audience. He is without a doubt a charismatic actor and absorbs the whole theatre with his stillness and inner life. Troy is dark, complicated and violent but also humorous, playful and a dreamer, and Henry manages to create a believable man whose life has run away from him, in the wrong direction.
Paulette Randall’s production is real, touching and hard to swallow. It has beautiful moments of sincerity and lightness, which are then knocked over by emotional weights that burden the whole theatre. The cast is superb, especially Tanya Moodie who is a great accessory to Henry’s troubled Troy.
Fences is drama at its highest – fantastic set, cast and creative. But it is very heavy and with its nearly three hours of lost hope and broken dreams it can feel long and depressing. However the emotional weight of the piece is touching, raw and well worth the ride.
Fences is playing at the Duchess Theatre until 14 September. For more information and tickets see the ATG website.