|Top: John Beasley as Troy Maxson in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “Fences,” playing now through Oct. 11, 2009, at the Boston University Theatre. Above: Beasley, Bill Nunn as Gabriel and Crystal Fox as Rose Maxson. (Eric Antoniou photos)|
|Faith Lambert as Raynell (left) and Warner Miller as Cory Maxson in a scene from “Fences.” (Eric Antoniou photo)|
|(From left): Warner Miller as Cory Maxson, John Beasley as Troy Maxson, Bill Nunn as Gabriel and Crystal Fox as Rose Maxson in “Fences.” (Eric Antoniou photo)|
When the Huntington Theatre Company opened its 28th season last Friday, it began a 2009-2010 campaign dedicated solely to the telling of stories by American writers, a first for the institution.
It’s appropriate, then, that the season begins with a play centered on America’s pastime, baseball. It was written by one of America’s most celebrated playwrights, the late August Wilson, and directed by a quintessential American director, Kenny Leon.
Running through Oct. 11 at the Boston University Theatre, “Fences” tells the story of Troy Maxson, a star slugger in the Negro Leagues who was denied an opportunity to play in Major League Baseball due to racism. Since its 1987 Broadway debut with James Earl Jones starring as Maxson, “Fences” — the sixth play in Wilson’s monumental 10-play cycle chronicling the African American experience throughout the 20th century — has become one of the playwright’s most recognizable and often-produced works.
It is also one of the two Wilson plays that the Huntington, which artistic director Peter DuBois said “provided August with an artistic home throughout his career,” had not yet produced. The choice to stage the play now raises questions of relevance and value (it is, after all, set in the 1950s and ’60s), as well as the challenge of discovering new areas to explore within a play that has been canonized as a contemporary American classic.
Moreover, the production would require the hand of a sensitive director who understood the history of the play, the intricacies of the culture it depicts and its significance in this millennium.
Enter Kenny Leon, a young African American director with an appreciation for the past, a sense of responsibility to preserving African American stories, and a contemporary take that places the plays he directs at the forefront of modern drama. He was also one of only three directors hand-picked by the late Wilson to direct his plays on Broadway, and one of only a handful of directors who have staged all 10 plays in the cycle in theaters across the country.
Leon, whose relationship with the Huntington company goes back some 16 years, is perhaps best known for directing the highly successful 2004 revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” starring Sean “Diddy” Combs and Phylicia Rashad, which brought droves of black audiences to Broadway and made Rashad the first African American to win the Tony Award for best actress in a drama. The subsequent ABC film adaptation of the play also won praise, garnering three Emmy nominations and winning three NAACP Image Awards.
Leon holds a special position in American theater. At the age of 34, he became the first African American to helm a major regional theatre in the South, Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. He has been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts, recognized as one of People magazine’s 50 most beautiful people and named one of the “Top 20 Southerners to Watch” by the Financial Times of London magazine.
“Kenny has been such an important part of the Huntington’s special relationship with August and his work,” DuBois said. “I am thrilled to welcome him back.”
Leon recently spoke with the Banner about revisiting “Fences” for the fourth time, Wilson’s impressive legacy, his plans for the future and more.What is it like going into this play again at this time, especially not having Mr. Wilson to call on the phone?
No, not really. We know that’s the reality. This is an old sports town, so when you talk about baseball and this play, it’s very much alive and it makes the play universal. And also, it’s a play about family. And many people, regardless of their background, can always recall the relationship with “my father, yeah, I remember that,” or the relationship between Troy and Rose. So you’ve got a husband-and-wife thing going on, you got a father/son thing going on, you’ve got a mother-and-stepson thing going on, you’ve got a war veteran who is back and mistreated. So you’ve got a lot of things running through this play. …
“Fences” is August’s most accessible play for the audience of a broader American population, because it deals with so many of those American themes and it’s so well-structured. It’s classic August Wilson — the poetry is great, the character development is wonderful — but the structure of this play is comparable to “Death of a Salesman,” or Eugene O’Neill’s “[A] Moon for the Misbegotten,” or any of Tennessee Williams’ plays. … The first act will run an hour, the second act will run 50 minutes, there will be a 10-minute intermission, and then after those two hours, hopefully [the audience] would have then laughed, thought and cried. And that’s what great American theater is.Last spring, Bartlett Sher, resident director of the Lincoln Center Theater, staged a very successful production of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” At the time it was announced, he was the first white director to direct a Wilson play on Broadway, and it brought up a bit of controversy because a lot of people felt Wilson always wanted to provide opportunities for African American artists. Then there was another perspective that if we are going to look at Wilson’s work in the canon of American drama, other perspectives should be brought to the table. Can you share your viewpoint about that particular production and the decision of having a white director direct Wilson on Broadway?
You know, I’m way past [that] component of the conversation, because August certainly has had other white Americans direct his plays. He was very careful about his Broadway productions because those plays usually went the regional theatre route, and he’d already had a working relationship with the director for over a year to deliver the play to Broadway, and he always wanted to work with a director that he was comfortable with and respected their work. …
I think one of the reasons August was so persistent about black directors — for example, when “Fences” was up to be developed as a film, he wanted a black director — his point was that African Americans had not been offered an opportunity to direct Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill. We weren’t offered to direct any of their work, so when folks say, “Oh, we want the best director,” many times that is [a] code word for … “We’re not gonna even consider a black director.” So if you pick the 50 best film directors and none of [them] are African American, and you say these are the 50 best, what does that mean? …Now that Mr. Wilson has passed on and is no longer working on these plays, now is the test of the literary weight of his text. As you approach “Fences” — as you approach any of his work from now on — can you talk to us about what it’s like to look at his plays? Are they just solid classics that are being performed? Are you looking for new things? What is it like now that his 10-play cycle is in this canonization process?
Well … you know, he wrote 10 great plays, and they are like 10 children, and as a parent for those 10 plays you’re like, “I like ’em all for different reasons.” But I also think that we have a responsibility to keep them in the mind of our young people, to introduce them to young folks, to encourage artists to reinterpret the material and honor his poetry, his rhythm and his text, but also to look at it and find themselves in the work. …
I think that’s a lot for us to put our arms around, so every time I work on these plays, I always consider it an honor and a privilege. And I am always looking for me in the play — where am I now, how is this speaking to me now, how does this speak to a living audience? I’m not doing this for an audience in 1995, I’m doing this for an audience in 2009, so how can I make it relevant? How can I make it mean something to them, beyond the history of it all? …
So the goal is to keep introducing him to as many people [as] I know. Because if you say to folks, “What is your favorite African American classic?” they say “A Raisin in the Sun,” and that’s it. And it’s like, “Wait a minute.” We have to do a better job in presenting our work and keeping our artists alive, and not let James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston or Lorraine Hansberry — not let these people go. … It’s important for us to keep interpreting, just like how [Anton] Chekhov and Shakespeare get reexamined, and … keep it alive.Akiba Abaka is the producing artistic director of Up You Mighty Race Theatre Company.