THEATER REVIEW: “Fences” @ Karamu by Mansfield Frazier

Through Sun 10/21

The thing about a classic stage play is that you can see it time and time again and — even though you virtually know the plot by heart — still be moved by the words and emotions of the performers. This is the case with August Wilson’s Fences, the story of a bitter black man, Troy Maxson, who acquired the requisite skills to play baseball at the Major League level while in prison, but never got the chance because the sport was still segregated when he came along. Jackie Robinson had yet to break the color barrier.

The play (set in Pittsburg in 1957, was written by Wilson in 1987) resonates particularly with black audiences since every black person personally knows of — or has been told about — someone (perhaps a family member) whose life options and opportunities were limited due to racism.

In my case, a longtime friend of my father’s once told me when I was an impressionable 13-year-old, that if my dad — whom I saw as a successful small businessman — had been white, he would have been a millionaire probably many times over, he really was that astute of a businessman. The man was right; I later found out that access to credit kept my father from growing his business into the vision he had for it.

Maxson works as a garbage man, but is resentful because white ball players of lesser talent who had retired from the majors to lead financially comfortable lives. That’s why he’s the personification of an “Everyman” in the black community.

But at least my dad wasn’t bitter about his potential being limited because of his skin color, whereas Troy Maxson is. So bitter in fact he drives his son away from him and out of the house, and attempts to assuage his feelings of failure in the arms of another woman.

Maxson’s paramour becomes pregnant and dies during childbirth, leaving him with a motherless child to provide for. He has no option but to ask his long-suffering wife Rose to help him raise the baby, and after initially saying “no,” Rose, displaying the compassion and strength that makes black women the best example of the human species, takes the child and raises her as if she had given birth to the girl herself — as her own.

This production is virtually flawless in every aspect: from the excellent crafting of the set, to the directing of Karamu president and CEO Tony Sias, to the entire cast of competent professionals. But if there is one standout, it’s Karamu regular Prophet D. Seay, who plays the role of Gabriel, the brain-damaged brother of Maxson. His range, intensity and depth of understanding of the characters he plays are nothing short of astounding. Seeing Seay back on the boards at the newly renovated Jelliffe Theatre is well worth the price of admission alone.

From CoolCleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier Frazier’s From Behind The Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate is available in hardback. Snag your copy and have it signed by the author at http://NeighborhoodSolutionsInc.


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