Stage

Weales, Gerald

320: STAGE BRINGING THE LIGHT 'FENCES' & 'THE COLORED MUSEUM' At the end of August Wilson's Fences, the Maxsons gather for the funeral of Troy, who has dominated the family and the play....

...G eorge C. Wolfe is a black playwright working theatrical ground very different from that of August Wilson...
...For the most part, Fences is a family play in an old American tradition Awake and Sing!, Death of a Salesman, A Raisin in the Sun in which the conflicts within the family are given definition by the social forces outside...
...The somewhat leaden libretto that Wolfe provided for last summer's reworking of Duke Ellington's opera Queenie Pie was hardly preparation for the invention, the irreverence, the verbal ingenuity of The Colored Museum...
...He uses his sense of ownership and control (my house, my yard) not only to stifle his son's ambitions but to misuse his brother, whose disability payments bought the house, and his wife, whom he loves but to whom he brings the child of another woman...
...That's not really the way that go, meaning the play as a whole, but the effectiveness of the final scene is a reminder that Wilson stretches the limits of the realistic form his play takes (as he mixed songs and dramatic scenes in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) and that the verisimilitude of his language cannot disguise the lyric qualities in his work...
...Light pours across the scene...
...James Earl Jones, in one of his best roles, joins the playwright in making Troy both attractive and threatening...
...Troy Maxson is a black man in his early fifties, at once an authority figure and a garrulous, playful nice guy...
...After three increasingly desperate tries, Gabe howls in anguish and frustration...
...and "Permutations" in which a little girl (Vance, again) sits with a giant egg between her legs, certain that "any day now, this shell's gonna crack and my babies are gonna fly...
...Although he has the strength to buck the system, to get himself promoted from garbageman to driver, he sees the world in terms of his own past...
...Troy fills the last scene even in his absence, and when his son, now a sergeant in the Marines, joins his half-sister in singing Troy's song about Blue that "good old dog," acceptance of and forgiveness for what Troy and his world had made of him prepare the way for Gabe's bringing the light...
...What remains is Troy's strength, his sense of duty, and his odd vulnerability...
...He has become a variation on the tyrant father he ran away to escape...
...At his best, however, he is one of the most intriguing playwrights around...
...The latter is the neatest image I have seen of the persistence of hope against all odds...
...he says, smiling his satisfaction...
...Whether out of jealousy or to protect the young man, Troy refuses to sign the papers that would let his son go to college on a football scholarship, a destructive act that leads to a final confrontation between the two and a reenactment of the father-son conflict that sent Troy off on his own...
...His "mixed-up" brother Gabe, who had "half his head blown away" in World War II and who believes that he has been to heaven, unlimbers the trumpet he always carries "to tell St...
...The marvelous first act needs a performer in the leading role who can both move like a dancer and articulate complex verse lines...
...Best here for me, at least are "Git on Board" in which Danitra Vance as the stewardess on Celebrity Slaveship uses a relentlessly chirpy voice to guide the audience through black history...
...Yet the production of Death at Lincoln Center, directed by Soyinka, never approached the quality of the script...
...As "Last Mama" indicates, Wolfe's sketches can become diffuse, the point dissolving among too many targets...
...He has come to believe that a black man's only choice is between jail, where he spent some youthful years, and a steady job...
...in fact, what Wolfe does to and with A Raisin in the Sun in The Colored Museum suggests that Fences might be fair game for Wolfe's wit...
...GERALD WEALES 321...
...Sitting in the audience, one could sense who was on what side of which fence by the applause that accompanied the son's defiance and the wife's revolt, her acceptance of the child and rejection of Troy as husband...
...Soyinka's work is seen so infrequently in this country *that it is a shame that Death and the King's Horseman should appear in a production likely to convince anyone but the converted that his work is too special for American audiences...
...Wole Soyinka, the Nobel laureate, is one of the finest contemporary playwrights and Death and the King's Horseman is one of his best pJays...
...The second act worked better than the first but as a clash-of-cultures drama which, as Soyinka rightly pointed out in an accompanying note, is not what the play is really about...
...Earle Hyman, always rigid of carriage, made a stick of Elesin and his voice, usually his strength as an actor, failed him, as though his lack of physicality had invaded the rhythm of the lines...
...Having learned to play baseball in prison, he went on to become a star in the Negro League but, despite his talent, the color line kept him out of the majors...
...he cannot see that there might be other possibilities in the 1950s, roads that were not open thirty years earlier...
...despite the glamour and the sophistication, they are a black updating of Aunt Jemima and the chef on the Cream of Wheat box...
...Yet "The Last Mama-on-the-couch Play" has less to say about Lorraine Hansberry's kind of play than it does about black performers' (or perhaps black characters') upstaging one another for audience attention...
...That's the way that go...
...There is no mouthpiece, no trumpet blast...
...Set in "a Northern American industrial city" (i.e., Wilson's Pittsburgh) in 1957, it uses the metaphor of the fence which Troy builds around his backyard as title to a play about the fences between husband and wife, father and son, black and white...
...In "The Photo Session" two black models explain that they escaped "the contradictions of our existence...gave away our life and we now live inside Ebony Magazine...
...320: STAGE BRINGING THE LIGHT 'FENCES' & 'THE COLORED MUSEUM' At the end of August Wilson's Fences, the Maxsons gather for the funeral of Troy, who has dominated the family and the play...
...Peter to open the gates...
...That's the way that go...
...A revue in which the sketches are designed to comment on the perception of and by blacks today, Museum is often outrageous but essentially serious in its jokes...
...A central prop in Fences is the baseball that hangs on a rope from the tree in the yard...
...Both Fences, which won the Pulitzer, and The Colored Museum are available to playgoers, but the most ambitious and most disappointing of this season's black plays has already come and gone...
...Troy's device for batting practice, it is a constant reminder for him and for us of his greatest triumph and his greatest disappointment...

Vol. 114 • May 1987 • No. 10


 
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