Troy Maxson (Michael A. Shepperd) is a big man, a powerful, magnetic man who dominates with his voice and physical presence in whatever situation he finds himself. A pre-World War II star in the Negro Leagues, he takes some pride in his former prowess and seethes in the memory of the racist limitations that prevented him from realizing what Jackie Robinson and others were able to achieve after the color bar was shattered. But, now, in the time and place of August Wilson’s “Fences” – Pittsburgh, 1957-1965 – Troy carries an anger that, despite his infectious bonhomie and rough eloquence, underlies his interplay with those around him. With his loving, clear-sighted wife Rose (Karole Foreman), he is jocular and roughly grab-ass sexual as he plays at being nominally subordinate by handing over his paycheck to her every Friday. With his long time friend and co-worker, Jim Bono (Christopher Carrington), he shares a prison-born intimacy tinged with condescension. As a trash collector for the department of sanitation, Troy has the audacity to question why blacks do all the lifting and carrying while all the drivers are white. His sense of injustice, honed by his disappointing baseball career, is razor sharp.
He maintains a bewilderingly cold, strict distance from his son, Cory (Jermelle Simon), a budding footballer with a chance at a college scholarship. And, after luring in the audience with his bigger-than-life persona, it becomes clear that, despite his charisma, he is ultimately unlikeable. August Wilson has created a character of Shakespearean proportions, a magnetic tragic hero who shatters those around him.
Michael Shepperd, titanic in the role of Troy Maxson, strides the stage like a colossus, fully realizing the potential of the character. A big man with a big voice, he makes Troy seem a force of nature. His is not a dark, one-dimensional characterization, but rather the creation of a rich, fully rounded, if flawed, human being, capable of joy, laughter, affection, loyalty and perception. Troy’s wife, Rose, (brilliantly realized by Ms. Foreman) is nobody’s fool, and she loves her man, has sacrificed for him and come to terms with his ways.
All the other characters swirl around him like planets orbiting the sun. Cory is yet one more generation passed slavery and sees the world in a very different way. Mr. Simon is fine as a talented young athlete with stars in his eyes, whose hopes and dreams are jeopardized by a father who came up in the harshest of ways. Lyons (smooth talking Theo Perkins), Troy’s son from an earlier marriage, is a stylishly clad, happy-go-lucky musician whose relationship to his father seems to consist of borrowing money on payday. Charming child actor Mma-Syrai Alek scores late in the play as love child Raynell, and Matt Orduña is extraordinary as Troy’s war-damaged brother Gabe, who caps the play in so powerful a way that the opening night audience leapt to their feet at curtain call.
Under the keen direction of Gregg T. Daniel, “Fences” is handsomely mounted with a two story set representing a house and backyard in the Hill District of Pittsburgh by Don Llewellyn and lit by Karyn D. Lawrence. Costumes by Kim DeShazo are period perfect.
It is clear that August Wilson and his magnum opus, the expansive ten-play cycle that chronicles the Black American experience spanning the Twentieth Century, is a profound work of genius. “Fences,” which won both the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama, deserves its acclaim and this production at ICT is not to be missed.
“Fences” runs through September 13 at International City Theatre.