August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle is one of the great tors of 20th century American drama. Ten plays set in ten decades that map in criss-cross fashion the evolving experiences of black Americans as they carve out lives on the streets of central Pittsburgh, against a changing backdrop of triumphant civil rights victories and the persistent shadows of white racism.
Fences, written in 1983 but set quarter of a century earlier, is really the portrait of a single man, tempestuous sanitation worker Troy Maxson, as he faces up against his own identity, weighing which parts of it he can call his own, and which have been forced upon him. It’s a deeply arresting work, shot through with humour and bittersweet lyricism, here blasted onto the stage by a roaring performance from Lenny Henry.
Henry gives Troy the force of personality he needs to dominate the little clapboard house he shares with his family, to puff up larger when the world belittles him. An ex-convict who’s turned his life around, or has convinced himself he has, he’s the gruff and bluff straight-talker with a ‘little of Uncle Remus’ in him, a little flicker of something like a song. He’s building a fence around his house, but as his old friend Bono (Colin McFarlane) points out, fences aren’t just for keeping people out, they’re for keeping people in too.
Troy has plenty of need for both. His view of the world has been badly skewed by the prejudice he faced as a boy. He distrusts white Americans, and he distrusts those who have reconciled themselves to an equality that he believes to be paper-thin. He carries his thwarted dream of baseball stardom around his neck like a millstone, and tries to pass failure onto his son Cory (Ashley Zhangazha) like an inheritance.
There are obvious parallels with much of Arthur Miller, and in particular Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman, but Fences is a fiercer piece, and Troy a more truly tragic figure. His treatment of his wife Rose (Tanya Moore), his retreat from his own values and his escalating delusions of righteousness are painfully realised, but Troy retains our sympathies. Wilson asks if we can blame Troy for the fences he builds around his life and the pain he causes within them, when he and other black Americans were given so little space to flourish in, when the circumference of their lives was so bounded and patrolled.
Henry’s performance must surely cement his status as an actor of serious force. His command of the comedy in Wilson’s writing is astute, but he unleashes pain, rage and misery with equal skill. He rages at the centre of Fences, as he squares up to the plate, swings his imaginary baseball bat and knocks the role right out of the park. There are no slouches elsewhere, either, with Moodie excelling as Rose, keeping her girlish twinkle visible to the last. Ako Mitchell unleashes hell as Troy’s holy idiot of a brother Gabriel, and his explosive final moments are a wonderful demonstration of the sheer fury Wilson was capable of, a spiritual rage that’s unmatched in the drama of his contemporaries.
Direction from Paulette Randall is first rate, and Libby Watson’s clapboard set is superbly detailed, with its rough and ready kitchen just visible through the ground floor windows. As the fences go up, the backyard of Troy’s house seems to shrink into a prison of his own making. Space is the recurrent theme of Fences – the space we are given and the space we find, the space we keep within ourselves, and the space that we fill up with those we love. Wilson and Troy seem to share a refrain: There’s never enough, there’s never enough.