NORTH EAST — On Friday night, history was made at the Milburn Stone Theatre as the first all-Black play to perform in Cecil County took the stage.
“Fences” is a period drama by August Wilson about a Black family in Pittsburgh following the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the more industrialized areas of the northeast and upper Midwest.
The show’s lead, Troy Maxson (played by Alfred Lance Jr.), is a tough father who is hard on his son, Cory (played by Charles Lewis Jr.). In one important scene, Troy coldly yet resolutely informs his son that there is no law saying he has to “like him” and teaches his son that the most important thing he can do is ensure that people “do right” by him.
“A man got to take care of his family,” Troy tells his son Cory in the play. “You live in my house, sleep on my bedclothes, fill your belly up on my food… ‘cause you my son. You my flesh and blood. Not ‘cause I like you. ‘Cause it’s my duty to take care of you. I owe a responsibility to you.”
The play opened on Friday and ran through Sunday. Friday’s premiere, however, featured a talk-back for members of the audience to ask questions to the director, Alliyah Thorpe, and the cast members after the show was over.
While the play is a first for Cecil County in that the cast is entirely Black, “Fences” is a universal play that, as the actors discussed, can apply to many people. Darryl Thompson Jr., who played Gabriel in the play, told the audience during the talk-back that “Fences” has the ability to resonate with people from many different viewpoints and walks of life.
“‘Fences’ resonates because the story itself, as it’s written, is universal,” Thompson said. “It is not so much unique to the Black experience. There are folks from all walks of life who have an overbearing father, who has abuses in his childhood that he passes on to his children.”
The play is set after the Great Migration and certainly Troy’s interactions with racism, white people and, as he says, “death itself” happen in the light of a Black family’s experience in 1950s Pittsburgh. But, as Thompson emphasized, while “Fences” is a play about a Black family and their experiences with Black people, white people and their environment, it is also a play about values, honor and duty.
“The themes about duty and responsibility, these aren’t unique to the black experience, they are universal to our whole human experience,” Thompson said.
Lance, who played Troy, said that, even though Troy is the main character in the play, it is an ensemble piece that works so well only because of the importance of every character’s role.
There are only seven total cast members in the production, which means every single one has to carry the show a heavy amount while they’re on stage. This requires a high attention to detail, right down to making sure the facial expressions convey what they’re supposed to convey and can be seen by the audience.
Thankfully for the cast, they did not have to wear face coverings which, for a show like “Fences,” would have been detrimental.
Stone cold dramas like “Fences” are not where Lance has been acting in most of his career. He comes from a dance and musical background and remarked about how different the types of acting are.
“It’s been an honor, honestly, I realized the other industry players are very different,” Lance said. “There’s no music, there’s no choreography, it’s you and your words, and it feels a lot more exposed than doing a musical.”
During the talk-back, which was moderated by the production’s dramaturge, John Gillespie Jr., audience members had the opportunity to ask the actors questions including how they felt portraying their roles and what the process was like, to name a few. At the end, however, Gillespie asked one final question to the director and the actors, which encapsulated the historical importance of this production and what they believe the future might hold.
“Since this is the first all Black casted play at Milburn Stone Theatre, what do you see for the future as a result of what you’ve done today?” Gillespie asked. “And what do you hope to see for the future of theater in Cecil County, at Cecil college and at Milburn Stone?”
Every actor answered this question, to which Thompson spoke about the universality of the play. However, both the actor who played Cory (Lewis) and the director, Alliyah Thorpe, are from Cecil County. So, for them, the question of progress and historical importance hit close to home, literally.
“I think me and Charles are the only ones that grew up here,” Thorpe said. “And I feel like I spent a lot of my life just trying to leave. And so it meant a lot to me to move back here and be able to go back to my home theater and do something like this. We’re in the middle of doing all kinds of different theater projects related to diversity; this was where I felt like, okay, I can really make a difference. And I can really bring new, not just diverse cast members, but new actors to our theater and new communities here. There are a lot of people who bought tickets to the show and didn’t know this theater existed.”
Lewis also reflected on his upbringing in Cecil County, while also mentioning he had a very loving family and father, much unlike the life he acted in onstage.
“I grew up in Cecil County, elementary school, middle school, high school, half of college,” Lewis said. “You know, this is a home just as much as anywhere else. I’ve seen it when it wasn’t the best, and I’ve seen it get better. I’d say a show like ‘Fences’ is proof that even though we’re not there yet, we’re still walking in the right direction.”
August Wilson’s “Fences,” directed by Alliyah Thorpe, ran at the Milburn Stone Theatre at Cecil College Sept. 17-19.