Tomorrow night, August Wilson’s Fences begins previews at the Huntington Theatre Company, an organization which provided Wilson with an artistic home throughout his career. Fences is one of only two plays from his ten-play cycle of the African American experience in the 20th century that the Huntington has not staged.
To add to the conversation about this major piece of theatre, Explore Boston Theatre asked playwright and theatre artist, Carlyle Brown to reflect on August Wilson and Fences.
One of the most vivid theatrical images that remains forever etched in my imagination is the 1987 Broadway production of August Wilson’s Fences where James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson walks down the alleyway toward his hard won two-story brick Pittsburgh house with a baby wrapped in his arms, a little girl a child to another woman now deceased that he is bringing home to his wife. Without a word spoken we are foreshadowed from what up to then had been a domestic drama of an African American family to suddenly realize that we were witnessing a great and classic American Tragedy. The scene that follows this image is a short scene, perhaps a page. At its end Troy’s wife Rose says, “Okay Troy…you’re right. I’ll take care of your baby for you…cause…like you say… she’s innocent…and you can’t visit the sins of the father upon the child. A motherless child has got a hard time. (She takes the baby from him.) From right now…this child got a mother…but you a womanless man.” From there the life of Troy Maxson begins to fall apart. A fall from a dream deferred, sad, full of truth and brilliantly told.
I never really knew August Wilson and although we had met on various occasions we had never had anything that one might call an association. In fact when I arrived in St. Paul, Minnesota at Penumbra Theatre Company in February 1988 a year after his Broadway production of Fences for the production of my play The African Company Presents Richard III where August was still living to my own mind our distant and obtuse relationship had become somewhat contentious. The Twin Cities press kept comparing me to August, “Like August Wilson…” “As with August Wilson…” “Similar to August Wilson…” I felt as if I was being hidden in his shadow.
Seventeen years later, a time that now seems just a wink of an eye, August was gone from this world. The litany of his legacy is well known, a cycle of ten plays about the experiences of African-Americans in the twentieth century, two Pulitzer Prize Awards, New York Critics Circle Awards, American Theatre Critics Awards, Drama Desk and Tony Awards, a Broadway theater named in his honor, the list goes on seemingly endlessly. Only the Nobel Prize eluded him. A case of bad timing as the Prize is only awarded to living writers. Yet his passing seems somehow strange for what is there to really grieve when the labor of his love can be seen almost nightly everywhere in the American Theatre where his shadow does not hid but illuminates.
And yet there was still more as I was to discover as I found myself flying on a plane to Chicago sitting next to my old friend and an old friend of August, director Marion McClinton who to my mind beyond Lloyd Richards was and is the furthermost interrupter of the Wilson canon. We were on our way both to speak at a Sunday Matinee after show panel with Congo Square Theatre of Chicago on the occasion of their first production of their 2006/07 season dedicated the memory of August Wilson a year almost to the day after his death. The play was The African Company Presents Richard III. It seems that The African Company, a history play about the first African American Theater Company in America in the early nineteenth century was one of Wilson’s most favorite plays and as a mentor of Congo Square’s Black Ensemble Theatre Company he had encouraged and championed the play from their inception. Its themes were the subject from which he initiated the African Grove Institute and a play, according to his long time collaborator Marion McClinton in which August saw his role as an African American artist in the American Theatre. Needless to say that I was both gratified and humbled, but I was most touched by how much my friend Marion missed his friend August. From Marion I learned that the critical acclaim, the awards and the universal accolades where the least of Wilson’s achievements. He has given a generation of African American actors and directors the opportunity for useful and meaningful work, work that comes from their own experiences and their souls, work that matters that gives not just African Americans audiences but all Americans audiences the understanding and the clarity of the centrality of the African American experience to American life. Because of August Wilson you could hold an audition in a stadium filled with African American actors and throw a stick in the air and where it landed you would find not just a great African American actor, but a great American actor. As August says at the end of the final scene in Fences through the mouth of Troy Maxon’s brother named after the angel Gabriel, “That’s the way that go!”
Carlyle Brown is a writer/performer and artistic director of Carlyle Brown & Company based in Minneapolis. His plays include The African Company Presents Richard III, The Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Colored Minstrel Show, Buffalo Hair, The Beggars’ Strike, The Negro of Peter the Great, Pure Confidence, A Big Blue Nail and others. He is on the board of directors of The Playwrights’ Center and Theatre Communications Group, the national organization for the non-profit professional theater and the Jerome Foundation. For a full bio and to learn more about Mr. Brown’s work, please visit the website for Carlyle Brown & Company.