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Cal Shakes Review: Fences by August Wilson

Friday, August 5, 2016 - 08:00

The second performance in this year's Cal Shakes season is August Wilson's "Fences", part of what came to be known as his Pittsburgh Cycle, a play set in each decade of the 20th century centering around the black neighborhood where Wilson spent half his life. "Fences" is set in the '50s, focusing around Troy Maxson, a former Negro League ballplayer, ex-convict, sanitation worker, outwardly devoted husband, and well-intentioned but stumbling father.

The setting and characters are solidly rooted in the racial history and dynamics of mid-20th century America, contributing to Maxson's frustration at the sports career he feels he was cheated out of, the uncertainties of his employment when he pushes for racial equity in job opportunities, and the constraints on his sons' opportunities, both in reality and in Maxson's imagination. But there are many universals in the play as well: the ways in which each generation struggles with the disfunctions of the previous generation and perpetuates them in the next. The ways in which ideals of duty and obligation can undermine empathy and humanity. The ways we lie to ourselves and those around us to become comfortable with the choices we've made. And--especially pointed for me--the ways in which women are expected to subjugate their own dreams and desires to support and further those of the men around them.

The character of Rose Maxson [1], Troy's wife and the mother of one of his three children, begins as something of a cipher, performing all those supportive roles and negotiating Troy's relationships with the other characters. But by the end of the play, we're allowed to see much of what she's been suppressing to maintain that role, and she has the bitter triumph of finding her breaking point and drawing her lines. This is a great American play in every meaningful sense of the term. Although the Cal Shakes run is over, keep an eye peeled for a chance to see it when you can.

[1] Totally irrelevant aside: my middle name is in honor of my great-grandmother, Rose LaForge Maxson. As Herb Caen used to say, there's always a local angle.

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Ordinarily, when I get to my Friday Review slot and have more than one item stacked up, I do a bonus review over the weekend. But in this case, I'm holding off on Kelly Gardiner's Goddess until next week becuase I expect the combination of a visit from Lauri back to back with Worldcon will play hell with my media consumption. One thing I really really love about my new website is the ability to have blog posts all drafted up and saved in advance, so I only have to hit "publish".