Wharf 1 Theatre, March 30
We build fences around our countries, our jails, our houses and our hearts. As Bono observes in August Wilson’s potent play set in the 1950s, “Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.” Rose has her husband Troy erecting a fence around their yard throughout this play. It’s a stop-start process, partly because Rose wants to keep Troy in, and Troy wants to keep others out.
Having played the husband-and-wife leads when Sydney Theatre Company presented another brilliant African American play last year, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Bert Labonte and Zahra Newman are reunited in the same relationship here. As with Raisin, Labonte’s character is the epicentre, and here he turns in an even more riveting performance. The other characters must navigate their way around him as carefully as ships encountering a naval mine in a narrow strait because Troy doesn’t take a lot of prodding to explode.
When she learns Troy has been unfaithful, Rose describes the soil of his soul as being hard and rocky, yielding nothing. But Troy has been worn and weathered by his childhood, his father, World War II, violence, jail, failed relationships, illiteracy, poverty, menial work, fatherhood and, above all, disappointment that, because of racism, his outstanding talent as a baseballer didn’t lead to a stellar career.
But for all the baseball metaphors that litter Troy’s dialogue, fatherhood sits irascibly in the foreground of Wilson’s play. When Troy speaks of the relentless ferocity of his own father, he’s impervious to the irony. Fatherhood is presented as a trial, but where Troy sees it as a test of manhood, Wilson means it to be a test of empathy and sympathy.
Labonte gives Troy a loose-limbed swagger laced with enough braggadocio for the character to convince himself that he’s always in the right. He can be genial with his friend Bono (Markus Hamilton), caring with his brother Gabriel (Dorian Nkono) and even playful with Rose, but with his sons, family is a synonym for friction.
When his youngest, teenaged Cory (Darius Williams), asks his father why he never liked him, Troy’s response is, “Who the hell said I gotta like you?” He then viciously ends Cory’s budding football career, whether to save the kid from the racism and disappointment he endured himself, or to avoid being outshone. His older son, Lyons (Damon Manns), sired with another woman before Troy was jailed, is a jazz musician who implores his father to come and hear him play, but he will never bestow such an overt nod of approval.
If all this makes Troy sound like an ogre, Labonte’s exceptional performance humanises the husk, and makes us understand – even if we can’t always forgive – the failings. Newman is again a worthy foil, giving us a Rose who credibly still tries desperately to nurture their love, despite everything. Hamilton, Williams and Manns are all superbly realised in a production by director Shari Sebbens that reaches from assured to inspired, especially with Labonte and Nkono. Gabriel had part of his skull blown away in the war, and Nkono is rends or warms our hearts at every turn.
Jeremy Allen’s literal set is a joy of its own, exquisitely lit by Verity Hampson, while composer Brendon Boney takes an admirably minimalist approach in an era when few dare present a play uncluttered with music. Fences deserved the 1987 Pulitzer Prize, and this production does it proud. Please do see it.
Until May 6.