August Wilson’s plays are as much about the historical experience of African-Americans as they are about any one of his characters. This is certainly true of Fences, which begins in 1957, a year marked by federal troops on the ground in Arkansas and the forced desegregation of Little Rock Central High School.
In a few years the nation would see the 1963 March on Washington and the explosion of social protest that reached into the homes of every American with a television set. Change would be coming, although for Troy Maxson, Wilson’s embittered dreamer, it would come too late.
This is the 30th anniversary of the American stage classic, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Wilson, among many other accolades. Troy (Michael A. Shepperd) is a Pittsburgh sanitation worker with a checkered past — a 15-year stint in prison for homicide, where he learned to play baseball, followed by a promising career in the Negro baseball leagues that ended in deep disappointment when he wasn’t picked up by the major leagues.
That rejection has seeped into Troy’s soul and poisoned his relationship with his youngest son Cory (Jermelle Simon), a promising athlete who’s been spotted by a scout for a college football team. Cory, 17, needs his dad to sign off on his contract, but Troy refuses, insisting that Cory’s dreams are folly and he’s better off learning a trade to support himself and his family in the future. The boy offers up well-founded rebuttals to his dad’s putdowns — times are changing, just take a look at the career of Hank Aaron — but his father dismisses these with vitriolic ridicule.
The second important dynamic in the story concerns Troy’s relationship with his wife Rose (Karole Foreman), Cory’s mother, a kind and sensible person who’s built her world around her husband. Their stable 18-year marriage is now threatened by Troy’s love affair with another woman, a situation he keeps to himself until events force it into the open.
Troy, conceived as a spinner of tales wrestling with an anthropomorphic Death, was written to cast others in his shadow. It’s a difficult role, full of harsh inconsistencies.
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As directed by Gregg T. Daniel at International City Theatre in Long Beach, Shepperd shows himself capable of vigor and skill and passion. But something is missing in this production: a connection, a sense of intimacy and family (however dysfunctional). Though Foreman comes to life in one grand, beautifully written scene that bares all of Rose’s disappointments, overall Foreman and Shepperd aren’t persuasive as a couple.
The complexity of feelings that supposedly suffuses the relationship between father and son is also absent. It’s as if the supporting ensemble is there, like we the audience, simply to react.
That makes it a directorial issue. Going forward, this show needs more inner life.
International City Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; through Sept. 13. (562) 436-4610, ictlongbeach.org.