If the American Dream came true for everyone, it would need a new name. Splashy stories of success promote the ethos, but there is meaning to be found in the quieter, more common tales of failure, too. Fences, the acclaimed drama by August Wilson, examines the effects of one baseball player’s broken dream in 1950s Pittsburgh. Thirty years after its premiere, the play remains a masterful, moving study of history, legacy, race, loss and hope – as audiences will see on Mixed Magic Theatre’s Pawtucket stage from March1-17.
“I would describe it, in shorthand, like a black Death of a Salesman,” artistic director Jonathan Pitts-Wiley observes of the show, drawing parallels between the characters of Wilson’s protagonist Troy Maxson and playwright Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman. “What happens when the dream doesn’t happen? It’s not like you don’t make it and then you die. Sometimes you don’t make it and then you haul garbage for years and years and years.”
Fences’ Troy Maxson ends up a garbage man, but starts out a star athlete. His baseball career peaks before the desegregation of Major League Baseball, leaving him financially stymied and unfulfilled. He does his best to provide for his family, abiding by his own definition of masculinity. But his embittered, begrudging sense of duty affects his family members and their dreams in ways he can’t anticipate. As Jonathan muses, “This is not a person whose dream ended and so he bailed. In fact, he didn’t. And that had its own devastating consequence.”
Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Jonathan’s father, tackles the role of Troy. This marks his fourth time performing in Fences, but his first with Jonathan at the helm. (They’ve shared the story before, though; when Ricardo was cast in his first production of it, he and his then six-year-old son would run lines together.) From his veteran perspective, Ricardo explains how the backdrop of the '50s heightens the drama. “The role of every person in this show, if they had made it ten more years, would have been redefined in some respect,” he points out. “Some of the brilliance of Wilson is that, like great playwrights do, he tells a big story by telling a little story. It’s just this family. It’s people in this backyard, in Pittsburgh, in 1957, and the world is coming hard for everybody in here.”
Actor MJ Daly, who plays Troy’s wife Rose, thinks that the plain, accessible language of the script befits the backyard setting. “This isn’t a drawing room. People cuss. People talk about sex. It’s real life. So it’s gritty, inside and outside.”
Ricardo urges RI audiences unfamiliar with the play, or with Mixed Magic Theatre, or with driving anywhere to see theatre, to be brave. “The same way you have to make an investment in buying food for your table, you have to make an investment in making sure that the food for your mind is taken care of, too. And good theatre is food for the mind.”
MJ chimes in, with a grin, “And if you think you only like one thing, you just haven’t tried enough things.”
“You’re malnourished,” jokes Jonathan.
More food for thought: Fences is a Pulitzer Prize-winning part of the late Wilson’s series The Pittsburgh Cycle, ten plays that explore the African-American experience in the twentieth century. As Mixed Magic Theatre’s wealth of original material – like When Mahalia Sings and Moby Dick: Then and Now – continues to gain traction outside the state, the time is ripe for the company to mount a classic like Fences here at home. With a strong cast ready for the challenge, Mixed Magic seems poised to hit this baseball player’s story out of the park. Notes Jonathan of the production, “It’s a locally based ensemble of performers of color doing a great piece of American theatre. That’s not done that often.”