By Kay Kipling
The Westcoast Black Theater Troupe successfully tackles an important August Wilson work
The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe moved “uptown” when it relocated this season to the Historic Asolo Theater—hopefully a more permanent home for them after several nomadic earlier seasons. With its current production of August Wilson’s Fences, the company seems to also be making a move up in terms of dramatic ambitions.
In the past, WBTT has mainly focused on musicals, and indeed the rest of its 2006-07 season consists of musicals. But playwright Wilson (whose The Piano Lesson was also presented once by WBTT) is such a major voice of the American theater, especially in depicting the African-American experience, that it’s important for WBTT to tackle his work as well.
Fences, Wilson’s second play of a 10-play cycle and one of his most acclaimed, tells the story of Troy Maxson (Derek Jefferson), a middle-aged garbage collector whose seemingly easygoing demeanor belies a rage and a disappointment that have colored his life. When we first meet him, casually drinking and talking with a longtime friend (Michael Kinsey) and teasing his wife, Rose (Dionndra Kinsey), we have no idea how those emotions will manifest themselves during the play—and how they will affect his home and family.
But it gradually becomes apparent that Troy’s dashed dreams of playing baseball, his harsh upbringing and his emphasis on obligation, not love, when it comes to his young son Cory (Jeff Cange) will cause a rupture in his relationships that may not be able to be healed.
As Troy, Jefferson is appropriately physically imposing, and the question at the outset was whether he could also convey the emotional heft needed for the character. During the course of the evening, he did just that, displaying Troy’s charm but also the fatal flaws that end up pushing away those he cares about most. While his is the play’s crucial performance, it’s also important that the actress playing Rose rise to the occasion when her life with Troy is threatened by an outsider, and Dionndra Kinsey is effective in the scene where she confronts Troy with her own lost dreams.
Also contributing strong performances are Michael Kinsey as Troy’s best friend and Nate Jacobs as Troy’s brain-damaged brother, another specter of hopes unfulfilled. Jim Weaver’s direction is generally good, although the pacing on opening night was occasionally off; and James Florek’s set design of the Maxsons’ front yard and home was another step up in quality for WBTT.
Overall, watching Fences is a chance to savor once more Wilson’s absolutely authentic dialogue and his gift for making his characters distinct and memorable individuals who yet speak to audiences in a universal way. The production runs only through Feb. 17; for tickets call 360-7399 or go to www.ringling.org.