Cory Maxson (Charles Lewis Jr.) falls to the ground as his father, Troy Maxson (Alfred Lance) snatches a bat from his hand as the actors at the Milburn Stone Theatre practice one of the pivotal scenes in Fences, a play by August Wilson that represents the company’s first with an all-black cast, set to open this weekend.
In a previous scene, Troy after saying that Cory should not continue pursuing football, the patriarch of the Maxson family claims to his wife Rose (Ashley Baker) and best friend Bono (Sedric Willis), that he no longer has to worry about death, since they’ve already fought.
“I reached down and grabbed that sickle and threw it as far as I could throw it,” Maxson said. “Me and him commenced wrestling, and we wrestled for three days and three nights.”
“Fences,” marking the theatre’s return to live performance, is a period piece depicting a working-class black family in the aftermath of the Great Migration when African Americans moved to northern cities in large numbers. The play’s protagonist Troy Maxson moved from the South to Pittsburgh and now works for the city’s sanitation department.
“Fences for us is the first part in a commitment to making sure we are giving more opportunities for our cast and crew and audiences to see shows they may not have a chance to see on our stage,” Milburn Stone Theatre Artistic Director Andrew Mitchell said.
Lance was drawn to the production for the chance to participate in an August Wilson play.
“An August Wilson play around this area is not done frequently in the community theatre sector,” Lance said. “To be able to finally do a play written by a black playwright that has some relevant themes to the black experience, that was exciting.”
Lance is interested in how the play explores the dynamics of the black family. Lance was also drawn to the play for how though racism is present, it is not the overwhelming focus of Wilson’s script.
“There are so many stories to be told about the lives of Black people that are not about racism,” Lance said. “If you want to engage black audiences or diverse audiences, you have to start telling more diverse stories.”
Lance said as a Black performer there aren’t many opportunities to perform in work relevant to the black experience, and when black people are in theater they often aren’t written by black authors.
“When Black people are featured In a play, it’s still not written from a black perspective or by a black playwright,” Lance said. “If I have to do another musical where a Black woman gets beaten up, murdered or raped, these are stories that we love. I love ‘Ragtime,’ beautiful music, and a wonderful story, but the one Black woman gets murdered.”
Director Alliyah Thorpe argued that the play is truly the story of Rose, Troy’s wife played by Ashley Baker. Thorpe was partially inspired by how the killing of Breonna Taylor by police led to more discussion on the rights of black women in developing her framing of the play. Rose is the only woman who is seen on stage and is the glue that holds the Maxson family together.
“My job was to focus on why she’s the only woman on stage,” Thorpe said. “We mention other women in the play, but we never see them.”
Thorpe described Rose as the strongest character in the play, citing her sacrifices for her family, and kindness toward her children.
“She’s not meant to just be a background character,” Thorpe said.
Toward the end of the play, Rose is given a monologue, where she talks about how she put so much of herself into her relationship, only to get burned by Troy’s behavior.
“I wanted a house that I could sing in,” Rose tells her son. “And that’s what your daddy gave me. I didn’t know to keep up his strength I had to give up little pieces of mine.”
Lance agreed with Thorpe’s assertion that the play is Rose’s story.
“She is the one holding things together at the end. And in reality, she was the one caring for and holding everyone together all along anyway,” Lance said. “All the focus and attention is on Troy because he demands it, but in reality, it’s Rose that’s doing the providing that meets people’s needs.”
Lance said the play takes place in a time of more traditional gender roles. Troy views Rose as someone who is supposed to support him, and neglects her needs.
Baker said she doesn’t see the play as Rose’s story, but that she understands Thorpe’s viewpoint. Baker sees the production as Troy’s play, with Rose in the background.
“In the family structure, the man is the face, but it’s really the woman behind the scenes holding it all together,” Baker said.
Baker said her character wouldn’t have survived Troy’s behavior if it wasn’t for her religious values and the desire to have a better family than what she wants to create.
Sedric Willis, who plays Troy Maxson’s best friend Bono, said his character is very loyal to Troy, with a much weaker personality than his friend. Bono is important, as one of the few things that allows Troy to escape the struggles of his life.
“Everyone gets the blunt end of Troy except for Bono,” Willis said. “Troy never turns a negative eye toward Bono. He’s one of Troy’s only ways out of his regular life.”
Bono and Rose also have an interesting dynamic, both being close to Troy for many years and hearing many of the same stories over and over again. Willis and Baker glance at each other when Troy goes into fanciful stories about meeting the Devil and other events.
“I may handicap Troy because I lie to Troy, I say ‘yup you’re right’” Willis said. “I don’t cut him off like Rose, I let him talk.”
Lewis said Cory is just looking for acceptance for his father. Lewis, who has 8 siblings, draws from the difficulty of creating connections with his much older siblings in his performance.
“It was hard to build those connections with those you’re supposed to be closest to,” Lewis said. “I definitely relate to his sense of longing in that way.”
Lewis and Lance portray their relationship as more genuine, with scenes being more heartful instead of sarcastic, leading to a fight scene between them being less drawn out and violent than in the 2016 Denzel Washington film version.
“It’s not that Troy is less aggressive or has a better relationship with Cory but we don’t see it escalating that far,” Lewis said.
Lewis said his characterization changed from the first rehearsals, going from playing Cory as a disgruntled teenage football player, to a deeper understanding of what life was inside the Maxson family home. Lewis said he plays Cory as a lost child in an unhappy family situation.
“There’s a journey of growth, I’m reaching out, I’m not going to get my dad’s hand, but I’m still reaching,” Lewis said.
Troy’s other son Lyons (Evan Carrington), is looking for a career that provides him with a passion, rather than just food and rent. Lyons makes a living as a musician, but often has to borrow money from his father.
“He was someone that was very authentic, very unabashed, someone that wasn’t afraid to take a portrait of black America and present it to the masses,” Carrington said about the playwright August Wilson.
Carrington said Lyons is often considered secondary to Troy, Cory and Rose, but that “Fences” is an ensemble piece, where every character has layers and importance. Troy was in prison when Lyons was growing up making their relationship different than Troy and Cory.
“He had to grow up without Troy, and figure out life without Troy,” Carrington said.
Darryl Thompson Jr. said he views Gabriel, Troy’s brother who is disabled from an injury he suffered in WWII, as the spiritual protector of the rest of the cast.
“Every time Gabe is around everything is safe, and it’s only when Gabe is locked up that the tragic moments of the play happen,” Thompson said.
Thompson has previously played Gabriel in a production in New Jersey but he said this performance is different, with several new angles on the character because of the different relationships between the actors.
“It’s just the nuance of getting used to a new family,” Thompson said.
The set of “Fences” has grown much like the chemistry between the actors, over the past few months of rehearsal, starting out with just the bare bones of the house and few chairs, adding a tree with branches, a saw to cut wood, and other props.
Many of those details come from Wilson himself, Thorpe said Wilson is a very specific playwright, his scripts containing large amounts of details on how the sets are supposed to look and the emotions his characters feel.
Historic Value of “Fences”
Cecil County, according to Census records, is 88.3% white, with a black population of 7.3%. Though much of the cast is from outside of Cecil County, Thorpe, Lewis, and Dramaturge John Gillespie Jr. are from the area.
Lewis is from Chesapeake City and said seeing an all-black play in his home county, a place that often hasn’t been very inclusive, may inspire important conversations.
“I really want the community to come on out and see the show. If you think you need to see you won’t be disappointed,” Lewis said. “If you have your reservations about seeing an all-black show for whatever reason, just come out and see it.”
Lewis said he experienced racism in high school which made him shy and reserved until he began Cecil College and was part of a more diverse group. One incident that sticks out to Lewis is when he first got his license. Lewis was using his father’s car and was not listed on the registration. Lewis was pulled over for not having the right kind of plating around the front license plate and was taken to jail because of the registration.
“It was something that hurt. I always had Cecil pride, even today I’m in the middle of Philadelphia and I have a Maryland flag on my window,” Lewis said. “It just hurt to know that if I was of a different nationality it wouldn’t have been a big deal.”
Lewis said that “Fences” shows Cecil County is changing and becoming more inclusive.
“That’s the Cecil County of then. The Cecil County of now embraces Fences,” Lewis said. “I’ve had so many people who have just seen the Facebook posts or are friends of a friend of a friend that knows what’s going on, reach out on social media or stop me at Redner’s over by the Walmart and say ‘you’re in Fences, that all black show right? That’s amazing.’”
Elkton resident Thorpe began her involvement in Milburn Stone as a high school student. Fences marks the first full-length play she’s directed for the Theatre company. Thrope said “Fences” shows how the African-American and White family experiences, even if they are in similar economic circumstances, are different since white families don’t have to deal with discrimination because of their skin color.
“Since I grew up here, I feel like I have a good feel of, you know, the different opinions and different lifestyles in Cecil County,” Thorpe said. “It definitely frames how I approach this show as a director, but I’m not scared of anything. I’m not hiding anything from the play because it might offend someone.”
Dramaturge John Gillespie Jr. focused on three areas of research to help the cast learn more about the play’s 1950’s background, the Great Migration, when black people migrated from the south to the cities, the impact of World War II on Black Families and intergenerational trauma.
“I basically bring these historical elements together to try to think about, you could say, the psychological makeup of the character,” Gillespie, a native of North East currently pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature.
Troy moved to Pittsburgh from the South, fleeing his abusive father and destitution of sharecropping for a better life.
Troy’s house is financed by a disability check his brother Gabriel received from the Army after WWII. That fact comes to a head in a confrontation with his son Cory, who points out that for all of Troy’s pride in being a self-made man, his home comes from his brother’s disability.
Intergenerational trauma features in how Troy fears that his son will follow in his footsteps and become an athlete. Troy was a great baseball player in the Negro Leagues and was prevented from going to the major leagues because of segregation. Troy worries that his son, in following his own dream of football, will be held back by white racism so his son should instead learn a trade that will offer a steady living.
“He has a lot of reasons to believe the things that he does about the impact of racism on his son,” Gillespie said. “To see Troy be portrayed not as a person who has a sort of paranoia, but who has confidence in his position, that is something I was really happy to see.”
Thorpe said the setting of the play helps make it unique, as it takes place right before the Civil Rights movement.
“He’s been prevented from doing a lot of the things that he wanted to do in life, because of his skin color,” Thorpe said, referring to Troy.
For much of the rehearsal process, the cast was preparing for a masked performance, something which completely changed their ability to use facial expressions and project to an audience.
Willis said masks disrupt the setting of the play, giving an instant indication to the audience that COVID-19 exists.
“You see this mask you already know ‘oh they’re doing it because of COVID reasons,’” Willis said. “But we have to be in 1953 in Pittsburgh, it takes out the suspension of disbelief.”
However, Cecil College is now allowing the cast to perform with masks, giving them the opportunity to use the full range of actors’ tools.
“Acting is something that starts on the inside and pours its way out, from the tips of your fingers to the tips of your toes, everything you’re doing is a conscious choice, while you are portraying that character,” Lewis said. “It’s really hard to portray a character who has so many facial expressions and has so much life that’s pouring out through their face, without seeing their face.”
Baker said during more intense scenes with the characters yelling at each other, heat builds up inside the mask making it difficult to perform.
“Rehearsing in masks probably helped with their articulation and how they delivered their lines,” Thorpe said.
Thompson said he found ways to adapt in rehearsal, adding emphasis to body language and focusing on vocal performance, to get around the constraint of masking.
“It forces you to find new ways of expression,” Thompson said. “If I can’t smile to show that I’m elated. How do would someone know? Is it my body language? Is it a gesture? Is it just my eyes? Do I need to make movements bigger? There’s a whole new thought process.”
The play was originally planned for the previous season in April, but the COVID-19 canceled the production. Thorpe said the play was fully cast at the time with the exception of one role, but when rehearsals began again in June they had to recast for three roles as actors had to leave.
“It didn’t seem that this play was going to happen until earlier this summer,” Lance said.
Thompson was a late arrival to the play, having joined in late July/August, when the play initially began zoom rehearsals in January.
For many in the cast, the in-person rehearsals represented a ray of hope that the historic production could still continue
“To make that return on with a show that is relevant to the black experience with an all-black cast. I mean, you can’t ask for a better return to the theatre than that,” Lance said.
Fences is running at the Milburn Stone Theatre in North East on Sept. 17, 18, and 19. There are shows on 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, with 2 p.m. shows on Saturday and Sunday. Capacity is restricted to allow for social distancing. Friday will feature a talkback discussion with the audience about the themes of the play with dramaturge John Gillespie Jr., audience members are encouraged to submit questions in advance. Readers interested in buying tickets can go here https://milburnstonetickets.universitytickets.com/w/default.aspx?cid=209. Tickets cost $20 for adults, $18 for seniors (over 55) and military, $16 for Students/Cecil College staff. Masks are required for audience members.