August Wilson’s ‘Fences’ at People’s Light

Reviving a modern American classic

The late August Wilson accomplished a feat unrivaled in the history of American drama for its ambition: He completed a cycle of 10 plays, each depicting the lives of African-Americans in one decade of the 20th century. Fences, which won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for drama, is one of the most powerful in the series, and People's Light & Theatre Company in Malvern is opening its season with a beautifully acted revival.

Brian Anthony Wilson, Melanye Finister, and Michael Genet in "Fences." (Photo: Mark Garvin)

Like most of Wilson's works, Fences is set in his native Pittsburgh. The year is 1957, a transitional point at the dawn of the civil rights movement, when blacks finally had just started to make headway in sports and the arts. Troy Maxson, a promising player in the Negro Baseball Leagues in the 1930s and '40s, is now a garbage man. He's embittered that in the land of equal opportunity, chances for the black man are anything but equal. He prevents his teenage son, Cory, a talented athlete, from playing football and blocks his chances of being recruited by a college team, insisting that the boy learn a trade instead.

This creates friction with Rose, his eternally patient wife, who doesn’t suspect that Troy has a mistress on the side. Troy also battles with Lyons, his son by his first marriage, who has ambitions of being a musician but, at 34, is on his way to becoming a shiftless bum. The intertwined conflicts play out in the family's postage-stamp-sized backyard, where Troy shares stories about his unspeakable youth in the rural South and dispenses nuggets of wisdom on the meaning of life.

Flawed father figure

Like other iconic patriarchs in American drama, such as James Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night and Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Troy is a domineering, deeply flawed but achingly human character. In Director Kamilah Forbes's production at People's Light, Michael Genet makes us see that Troy cares about his family, for all his bellowing and violent tendencies. Genet's Troy is a tough, formidable spirit brought low by circumstances, and it's a beautiful, poignant portrayal.

Melanye Finister's Rose is equally impressive. She gives us a sense of why this bright woman puts up with Troy's often exasperating behavior, and she superbly handles Rose's transformation when Troy delivers shocking news to her at the play's climax.

There's also excellent work from Ruffin Prentiss, whose Cory is at turns sympathetic and as headstrong as his father; Wendell Franklin as the troubled ne'er-do-well Lyons; Brian Anthony Wilson as Troy's amiable best friend; G. Alverez Reid, who makes an almost otherworldly figure as Troy's mentally damaged brother; and young Cameron Hicks, who makes a brief, charming appearance as a late arrival to the family.

People's Light's season is off to a strong start, with a production of a modern American classic that provides a showcase for an array of stellar performances.

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