Chris Meyers and Esau Pritchett in Fences

Heavy Hitter

In playwright August Wilson’s impressive ten-part “Pittsburgh Cycle,” or “Century Cycle,” he set each play in a different decade of the twentieth century, all in his hometown, Pittsburgh.

Wilson could make a claim to New Haven as his home away from home because of a long and storied relationship with Lloyd Richards, the Dean of the Yale School of Drama and Artistic Director of the Yale Repertory Theatre from 1979 to 1991, who gave many of Wilson’s plays a world premiere. Their relationship began when the third play Wilson submitted to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center Conference, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was accepted for workshopping in 1982. Richards had been shepherding the O’Neil since 1969 and was instrumental in nurturing Wilson’s career.

Now Long Wharf Theatre is training its spotlight on the play that represents the 1950s in Wilson’s Century Cycle: Fences, which won a Pulitzer Prize and two Tonys, as well as Drama Desk and New York Drama Critics Awards. Wilson’s story, about a fate-jilted black baseball prospect-turned-garbageman, opens a window into a pre-civil rights era past as well as a racial divide the playwright believed persisted among the 1980s audiences for whom it debuted. Wilson told The Paris Review, “In Fences they (white Americans) see a garbageman, a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbageman’s life is affected by the same things—love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty.”

Directed by Phylicia Rashad, this production, which had its first staging this past Wednesday and will have its last on Sunday, December 22, is the first time Long Wharf has produced a work by Wilson. Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein marks it as a historic moment. “I don’t know of another American writer who has done what August (has)…he chronicled a century and chronicled a people.”

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Troy Maxson is the trash collector at the heart of Fences, an everyman ballplayer who missed the pitch that could have sent him soaring. His dream of being a major leaguer is now a bittersweet memory, impeded arbitrarily by racial prejudice. After his upbringing in the deep South, not far removed from slavery and sharecropping, and a years-long incarceration upon moving to Pittsburgh as a young man, we find the resiliency that saw him through his many ordeals wavering at the prospect of his son Cory, who’s been offered a college football scholarship, facing the devastation of dashed hopes that still haunts Troy.

Now 53, Troy still has some gumption left, challenging his boss to allow black employees to drive the trash truck, not just hoist it off the curb. But his glory days spent hitting fastballs are long gone. He’s still struggling to provide for his wife, Rose, their son Cory and a host of others, including his mistress and, eventually, their out-of-wedlock child.

Taking on this mammoth and complex leading role is Esau Pritchett (pictured center above)—all 77 inches and 250 pounds of him. Pritchett has an extensive background playing characters in Shakespearian dramas and comedies, including the Moorish Venetian general Othello, a role he’s inhabited on stage for eight productions. Pritchett says playing Troy is a “refreshing challenge.” Troy is a “completely different animal, with different energy” from any he’s portrayed before.

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The mononymous Portia (pictured second from the right above) plays the faithful and long-suffering Rose, and says her character is a bridge between Troy and the world. A homemaker, a mother, a lover, a wife and a friend, Rose tends to put others before herself. She’s driven to maintain a whole family, under one roof, reacting against the fractured household of her own childhood.

The central metaphor of the play is a fence that Troy is building for Rose. For her, it’s a physical manifestation of the desire to keep her family safe and close, and hers—not shared with a mistress. For Troy, it’s a barrier to the wider world that threatens earnest people with unfulfillable dreams and ambitions, protecting both himself and Cory (played by Chris Myers, pictured left above).

Fencing yourself off can bring security, but can it cure the aches that led to doing it in the first place? That and other questions are Long Wharf crowds’ to ponder over the next three and a half weeks.

Long Wharf Theatre – 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven (map)
Showtimes Tuesdays through Sundays, Nov 27 – Dec 22
(203) 787-4282

Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by T. Charles Erickson.

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