FENCES, Sydney Theatre Company at Wharf 1, 30 March-5 May 2023. Photography by Daniel Boud: above and below: Zahra Newman and Bert LaBonté; below again: Damon Manns and Dorian Nkono
Of the many remarkable elements of STC’s second African-American classic (after last year’s A Raisin In The Sun), possibly the most thrilling is Shari Sebbens’ maturity and assurance as director of August Wilson’s 1985 Pulitzer and Tony winner, Fences. It’s a play that, in lesser hands, could easily tip into melodrama and mayhem, but Sebbens’ approach is to modulate, to seek out the nuances and to firmly ground the performances in a painfully pragmatic and credible reality that brilliantly serves all.
Written in the mid-1980s and set in 1957 in Black, working-class Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Fences obliquely looks at racially and socially stifled post-WW2 metropolitan USA. After the relative freedoms of wartime, particularly for Black servicemen, the return to suppression would finally, in the 1960s, galvanize Black communities – primarily in Los Angeles (Watts), Detroit, and Newark – into unprecedented civil disobedience and violence against the obdurate racism of White USA. It had been a long time coming: Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955.
In Fences, there are signs of what is to come: Troy Maxson (Bert LaBonté) is a Pittsburgh garbage collector who enlists union support to gain access to a previously Whites-only job as a truck driver. At the same time, what rankles him more and is a festering psychic sore is his failed baseball career. Whether or not it was his colour rather than his skills that let him down, what also becomes clear is that baseball is a metaphor for his life as a man, a breadwinner, and a father. LaBonté is superb in the role, moving without a hitch from rollicking hero – in his own mind at least – to almost despicable sad sack.
Also dazzling is Zahra Newman’s Rose: Troy’s wife of 18 years and the rock around which the various currents of family life swirl. They have two sons, promising footballer 17-year-old Cory (Darius Williams) and jazz musician Lyons (Damon Manns). Neither boy has ever succeeded in getting their father’s attention or approval; Lyons cares little, and Cory cares too much. “How come you ain’t never liked me?” He asks his father while suspecting that jealousy and a fear that the son’s athletic prowess might eclipse his own is behind his hostility. The two brothers more than hold their own in power-packed company.
Ironically – and necessarily from both the audience’s and the narrative viewpoint – Troy is a beguiling rascal and his charm is portrayed with vivid intensity by LaBonté. He is well matched by Newman whose constant quiet strength, occasional sass, and radiant presence are riveting. Also fine as Troy’s long-time and finally long-suffering buddy Jim Bono is Markus Hamilton.
The lives portrayed in Fences – something Troy has been promising to build around the backyard for Rose for months – bear many resemblances to those in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, A View From The Bridge, and All My Sons. These are all people for whom the American Dream proves to be a nightmare. Over the decades, Australian theatregoers have become familiar with them. Stunning then, finally to see the story from a Black point of view. The Maxsons experience similar aspirations and endure comparable disappointments to the Lomans, the Carbones, and the Kellers, but with the crushing added burden of historic slavery and contemporary deeply-rooted racism. It’s a blood-curdler for us (white Australians, that is).
As it is, the Maxsons’ American bad dream is played out in the leaf- and weed-littered backyard of their dilapidated brick home. (Characterful detail in a single set by Jeremy Allen with correspondingly atmospheric lighting by Verity Hampson, and similarly apposite sound design by Brenton Boney.) Civil unrest may be looming in the wider world but WW2 remains in focus for the family in Troy’s younger brother Gabe. He returned with a plate in his head and brain-damaged. The real damage, however, is revealed as guilt that Gabe’s compensation payment bought the family home. As the play unfolds, Dorian Nkono’s Gabriel becomes ever more tragically gripping. It’s a wondrous performance of great subtlety.
After A Raisin In The Sun, this year’s Fences is another landmark production in STC’s evolution and growth, and a brilliant one. Recommended without reservation.