August Wilson Reviews
REVIEWS OF SEVEN AUGUST WILSON PRODUCTIONS
August 2019 MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM
Strong Staging at Multi EthnicTheater (MET) CAROLINE CRAWFORD — Bay City News Service
August Wilson wrote of African-American life in the 20th century in a series of ten plays representing each decade. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, now at Multi Ethnic Theater in San Francisco, takes on racism in the music business in the 1920s, Ma Rainey was one of the first black blues singers to sign with a major label in the early 1920s, in the years to come, she had fallen on harder times. As she works in a Chicago recording studio in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, she recognizes that her marketable skills as a singer are waning, and that outside the studio on the street she can’t even call a cab.
Lewis Campbell’s simple stage design shows Ma’s four musicians in the small rehearsal studio, initially upbeat about making some money and having a spirited argument about whether they will use the arrangement of the song Rainey wants or a newer one by the trumpeter Levee, the most intense of the group (powerfully played by Nathaniel Montgomery). Levee and trombonist Cutler (Vernon Medearis), bass player Slow Drag (Gift Harris) and pianist Toledo (Ernest White), the most reflective member of the group, play recorded phrases from time to time as if rehearsing, but the true music comes from their riffs on life, and they get the rhythms of Wilson’s language just right.
In the next room record producer Sturdyvant ((Joseph Walters) and his assistant Irvin (Richard Wenzel) are worrying about the temperamental Rainey, who is usually late and always demanding. She arrives, played imperiously by Susie Butler, who true to form holds up the proceedings even further by demanding her three Coca Colas, and further insists that her nephew Sylvester (Alex Loi) introduce her songs. Ma takes advantage of her status in the studio as a singer while reflecting on the indignities a black woman suffers. Butler plays her strong and ferocious, and she sings Ma’s title number with gleaming colors. Kyla Kinner is the sassy Dussie Mae, Ma Rainey’s girlfriend.
The cast is excellent, and Campbell’s uncomplicated direction brings Wilson’s rich language to the fore. The players never miss a beat in this dark and difficult play.
August Wilson Brings Ma Rainey to Life in Jim Crow America BARRY THORNTON
August Wilson’s 1920s Jazz Age play opens with a mic check in a small recording studio in Chicago, as Irvin and Mel, two white men, are arguing about recording Ma Rainey, famed Mother of the Blues. “I can handle her, Mel,” says Irvin. No such luck.
The practice room for the band, and the recording studio, is a small space crowded with action. And from inside the claustrophobic studio, we hear of the world outside: wrenching stories of near lynchings; even Ma’s late entrance is caused at least in part by a Chicago policeman harassing her. Irv has to bribe him.
And, of course, how to deal with the white man. Levee burns with aspiration and drive to write his own songs and form his own band and gets criticized for shuffling and saying yassir to Mel, the owner of the recording studio. But he sees only one path to a music career which goes beyond jug band music, his dis on the country-based blues Ma sings. And that path runs through the white people who own the studios. He says he can use them—he wants to stand up to them like Ma.
And there is the music. Ma Rainey, Mother of the Blues, knows that the white producers do not care about her. They want to use her to make money. When Susie Butler sings “Ma’s Black Bottom,” you know she did go to some empty spaces the church did not.:Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is very strong indeed.
August 2018 RADIO GOLF
JACK FOLEY – The Alsop Review and KPFA Radio
Radio Golf, August Wilson’s last play—he died of liver cancer between the premiere and the Broadway opening in 2005—is being presented by Lewis Campbell’s Multi-Ethnic Theater at PianoFight, 144 Taylor Street, in San Francisco. The play, set in the 1990s, is part of the monumental, ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle, for which Wilson received two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Radio Golf received the new York Drama Critics Award for Best Play. Wilson’s amazing achievement is being presented, play by play, in San Francisco in a project Campbell names “August in August.” Though previous productions have been directed by Campbell, Radio Golf was directed, most ably, by Gloria Weinstock, with Campbell functioning as Stage Designer. MET’s “August in August” is an ambitious and immensely satisfying project.
Harmond Wilks (played beautifully by Geoffrey Grier) is a real estate developer planning to run for mayor—Pittsburgh’s first black mayor. He and his friend, the ironically named Roosevelt Hicks (Gift Harris) are planning to “redevelop”—one of the great euphemisms of our time—Pittsburgh’s Hill District. High-rise apartment buildings are planned, as are high-end stores such as Starbucks, Whole Foods, and Barnes & Noble.
Vernon Medearis, who has never delivered a bad performance.) as Johnson—who also appears reminds Harmond of the children’s game of Cowboys and Indians: do you want to be a cowboy (white power) or an Indian? The Indians, Johnson suggests, are on the rise these days, and he puts on war paint to prove it. Behind the entire Pittsburgh Cycle is the animating, hopeful spirit of Malcolm X: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” Though August Wilson’s last play centers on the radio rather than the newspapers (Radio Golf) that is exactly the message he is conveying as well: look around you, see what is true, don’t believe the media, act.
The Multi-Ethnic Theater productions are a wonderful way to experience an extremely important voice in American theater, a voice, like Ishmael Reed’s, that deliberately reaches beyond the merely “esthetic.” Radio Golf is a carefully, even lovingly directed piece with excellent performances from everyone—Nicole Harley, Gift Harris, Kevin Johnson—and outstanding ones from Geoffrey Grier and Vernon Medearis. Like the house at 1839 Wylie, live theater too is a threatened institution. Why go to the theater if you can go to movies at the mall? Radio Golf is a powerful, beautifully articulated answer to that question.
August 2016 JITNEY
5 STARS — “I loved it !” John Freed’s Goldstar Event Journal
August Wilson is the best American playwright at the end of the 20th Century, and this possibly once in a lifetime production at the Custom Made Theatre is not to be missed. I flew in from Portland just to see it and was fully rewarded for my efforts.
“An excellent production of a powerful play with a dynamite cast.” Richard Wenzel — Goldstar Review
Set, costuming and direction were right on point and the scene change music was soul/r&b straight out of the 70’s and it was great to hear it again. There is humor to be sure in this production and on the surface tells the story of the everyday lives and struggles of a car service company that is trying to survive the cultural changes happening all around them, but it is at its heart (and oh does it have a big heart) also a powerful statement about the racism that is still present in our country and also the difficult relationship between a father and his son who has been a heartbreaking disappointment for him. This is a not to be missed production of a brilliant August Wilson script that tells a story being told by a top- notch cast that we all should listen to.
For more Goldstar audience comments CLICK HERE.
THEATRESTORM — Charles Kruger
Most audiences by now are familiar with playwright August Wilson and his major life’s work, “The Pittsburgh Cycle”, a series of ten plays exploring the experience of African Americans in the 20th century, through a series of stories set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, one for each decade of the century. Critics agree that “The Pittsburgh Cycle” is one of the great masterpieces of the twentieth century theatre. This production of “Jitney” is part of a plan to produce the entire ten plays of “The Pittsburgh” cycle. So far, Campbell has directed four and plans to present the six remaining over the next six years, one each summer. It is a fine ambition.
For Jitney, Multi Ethnic Theater founder Lewis Campbell has designed and directed a polished production, drawing fine performances from his skilled cast of amateur actors. This fine company includes a retired fireman, a career muni employee, a mental health case manager, and a Ph.D. candidate in psychology. The point being that this is a true community theatre (although most of these actors have accumulated a few professional-level credits over the years).
It is clear from the first beat that this director and these actors have deeply considered the play and the characters. The result is quite lovely. This gentle play explores the world of Black men working as underground cab drivers (jitney drivers) at a time when the Black community could not get regular cab service due to discrimination. They are working class folk with working class concerns, but they are also aware that they are providing an important service. Playwright Wilson has drawn a finely observed group of characters: among them a gambler, an alcoholic, a preacher, a hotel worker, an ambitious young husband with a new baby, and a proud young wife and mother. In Wilson’s hands, none of these characters is reduced to stereotype.
The story revolves around the decision of the city to raze their offices and effectively shut the operation down. Each of the drivers has to deal with the crisis that ensues, along with various personal dramas.
While all of the cast is quite good, there are standout performances by Trevor Lawrence as Fielding, a jitney driver and former tailor with an alcohol problem, and, especially, Anthony Pride as Philmore, a hotel doorman and recurring jitney passenger. Making the most of a small part, Pride creates a memorable and eccentric character.
Director Campbell and a fine cast have thoroughly understood August Wilson’s work and achieved a style of performance that is perfectly appropriate to the play. This production will please Wilson fans, and serve as a fine introduction for newcomers to “The Pittsburgh Cycle”.
A Richly Textured Presentation — Susan Cohn, San Mateo Daily Journal
In 1977, in a bare bones dispatch office in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, independent drivers pass the time between transporting fares. Pulitzer Prize-winning Playwright August Wilson’s language wonderfully captures the give-and-take, easy chatter, jokes and arguments of the men he knew growing up in the Hill District, and a uniformly strong ensemble does justice to his engaging work. The intimate setting of the Gough Street Playhouse (60 seats set on three sides of the stage) keeps the audience close to the action. Two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission. Directed and designed by Lewis Campbell. Through Aug. 31. Jitney is the fourth production in “August in August,” Multi Ethnic Theater’s project to produce an August Wilson play every August for the next six years.
August 2015 TWO TRAINS RUNNING
ROSS VALLEY REPORTER – Woody Weingarten
Two Trains Running, set in a Pittsburgh diner in 1969 is a rear view peek at America’s racial turmoil that concomitantly reflects today’s cringe- worthy headlines. Despite it being somewhat of an anachronism. With black playwright August Wilson leaning heavily on the n-word.
The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner wrote Two Trains Running in 1991 as one piece of a masterful ten play series, but neither his language nor ghetto portrait are as edgy as, let’s say, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s in the more recent Brother/Sister Plays trilogy.
All the actors in the work,, adroitly showcase the period and the black working class while juxtaposing the humor and hope of Wilson’s script. . Wilson’s work features seven flesh-and-blood characters searching for empowerment but failing to find it easily. Each character is well defined. Bennie Lewis’ bug-eyes quickly convey Memphis’ likability — and frustration. Keita Jones spotlights job-hunting ex-con Sterling as a confused but determined lover not above stealing flowers from a mortuary or teaching a developmentally disabled fellow a black power anthem. Beverly McGriff, the only female in the cast, makes me believe Risa, an emotion-blocked cook-waitress with a penchant for cutting her legs is willing to change. Fabian Herd replicates the shady and selfish character of Wolf, a bookie; Geoffrey Grier (who alternates the role with Anthony Pride) fabricates a tunnel-visioned, mentally deficient Hambone; and Vernon Medearis is appropriately unpleasant as black-clad undertaker/real estate magnate West. Stuart Elwyn Hall fills out the cast as Holloway, a 65-year-old self-styled philosopher.
Lewis Campbell, who founded the MET and wears hats as its artistic director, executive director and stage designer, skillfully directs the drama. His diner set, incidentally, feels totally authentic — the kind I long ago liked to frequent. Four booths, a pass-through window to the kitchen, an old-fashioned pay phone (where Wolf takes 600-to-1 numbers bets), a blackboard on which daily specials are chalked, and an on-again, off-again jukebox that’s occasionally fed quarters.
Wilson’s language in the play, produced in association with Custom Made Theatre, can be poetic. But it also can ramble. Brief passages can be
amazingly revelatory, though. As in a Memphis rant: “Ain’t no justice. Jesus Christ didn’t get no justice. What do you think you’ll get?” Or the effortless characterization embedded in Sterling’s nonchalant declaration that “I drove a getaway car once.” Or West’s optimistic pronouncement that “life is hard but it ain’t impossible.”
Jack Foley — KPFA-FM Radio
Lewis Campbell’s production of Two Trains Running is one of the finest in his tribute to August Wilson. I can’t imagine a better cast than this one. Even the mad, prophetic Hambone (“I want my ham”) is superb (Anthony Pride). Bennie Lewis’s Memphis is wonderful, strong, simultaneously wrong and right (Lewis acts with his whole body—especially his eyes!); his once-prosperous little restaurant is about to fall victim to “urban renewal” (dubbed by Amiri Baraka as “Negro removal”). Beverly McGriff’s Risa works for him: she has depths, there are razor marks, self-inflicted, on her legs—though she is also compassionate and full of a need for both love and religion. Memphis loves and respects her at one level, but the razor marks frighten him—and he criticizes her endlessly. Fabian Herd’s Wolf—numbers operator—is a kind of Sportin’ Life, but in Herd’s expert hands he becomes an object of sympathy as well. Stuart Elwyn Hall’s Holloway is like the Buddha in a run-down booth, full of compassion for his fellow creatures, getting by by minding his own business. He makes the famous and wonderful speech that if you put the words “nigger” and “gun” in the same sentence, you will certainly be arrested—unless of course you say “The policeman shot the nigger with his gun.” Vernon Medearis as the black-gloved mortician significantly named “West” gives, as always, great strength, wit and power to his character. Keita Jones’ Sterling—the new generation of Black men, the ones to whom Malcolm X has given new hope and new pride—is a strong character too. If you want the healing properties of 1839 Wylie Avenue, Pittsburgh’s Hill District, you can find them – shining -at Multi Ethnic Theater.
Gaetana Caldwell-Smith at www.forallevents.com
Two Trains Running, is one in a series of Wilson’s plays for each decade from the 1900s through the 1990s called the “Pittsburgh Cycle.” The plays are about Black lives in America. “Trains,” takes place in 1969 over a few days; it was directed by Lewis Campbell (who also designed the set). Wilson, like other 20th Century playwrights, such as Eugene O’Neill, wrote plays that unfold slowly, asking the audience’s patience as the characters take their time telling their stories.
With the audience on three sides of the realistic set, depicting a typical diner complete with booths, a jukebox, and pass-through window to the kitchen, we felt we were patrons in Memphis Lee’s (an excellent Bennie Lewis) diner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, along with his regulars. Prices written on a blackboard for fried chicken with dumplings, beans and corn bread, and steak and potatoes range from 65 cents to $2.35; and coffee is a nickel.
Sleek, catlike, well-dressed Fabian Herd plays 40s-something Wolf, a numbers-runner. Old man owner Memphis Lee, who comes off angry most of the time, railing at cook/waitress Risa (played with quiet introspection by Beverly McGriff), warns Wolf about using the diner’s payphone for his business. The city wants to buy his building cheap and tear it down, part of the gentrification of the city, forcing out black communities. He holds out for a higher price. A heavy-set, older man, Holloway (Stuart Elwyn Hall) sprawls in his booth, doing what looks like crossword puzzles, or studying racing forms; he often interjects philosophical comments. Keep an eye on the actor to catch his facial expressions as he listens to the others. For most of the first act we hear about West, the undertaker- black suit, black hat, black gloves. When we finally meet him (Vernon Medearis ), we are surprised. He appears to have once been a much larger man. Sporting a gray goatee, he comes in for his cuppa, always reminding Risa to bring the sugar packets. He talks about the man he’s burying for whom a crowd of mourners line the block for a last look, and the treasure the dead man is bringing into the afterlife. He boasts that he will never go out of business. People are always dying. Opening night, Anthony Pride replaced Geoffrey Grier as the believable, pathetic character of Hambone. Hambone is obviously mentally ill. Seems he was duped into painting a fence and never got paid what was promised. Other regulars want him to shut up, and some sympathize, especially Risa. Sterling (a stocky, handsome Keita Jones), a newcomer, appears. He is a young ex-con who brings to the diner the current events of the time about which the others seem uninterested or cynical, and a stack of flyers for a Malcolm X rally which is building up outside. He wants a girlfriend and courts Risa. Risa has mystery behind her, which is obvious physically, but doesn’t speak about it, leaving us to wonder what she is all about. The play ends with Sterling rushing in with Hambone’s payment. There’s an explosion offstage and sirens. I encourage you to see this play..
Kris Neely at MARIN BACKSTAGE
Two Trains Running is August. Wilson’s seventh effort in his ten-part series of plays entitled The Pittsburgh Cycle. It is a complex story based on the lives of ordinary people, a volatile turning point in American history. The location is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the racially charged world of 1969. Mr. Memphis Lee’s threadbare cafe is a regular stop for neighborhood folks all trying to understand the cultural maelstrom of the late 1960s. The regulars do their best to come to an accommodation with the swirling tides of change, but not always with the results they intended. As the play begins, the city block on which Mr. Memphis’s diner is located is due to be torn down in a city renovation project.
Fabian Herd was superb as Wolf, Vernon Medearis a study in subtlety and nuance as West (the undertaker), and Stuart Elwyn Hall every bit the oracle of Black life as Holloway. All three actors demonstrated a keen ability to do what so many actors fail at: to listen to what is being said by other actors, instead of simply waiting for their turn to speak. These gentlemen delivered acting in considered gradations, rendering layered performances which would hold them in good stead with notable theaters across this country.
The set design, that of a scruffy café so much a part of neighborhoods everywhere, was nicely done. The turquoise booths were period perfect. Unpainted plywood here-and-there emphasized a business managed with small dollars and ‘just enough’ repairs. Set construction showed care. Making a set look down-on-its-luck without making it look slapdash is harder than one might imagine. The set designer/builders (Lewis Campbell and David Hampton) pulled it off nicely. Props were period and detailed. Even though no one in the play ate anything which required catsup, the always ubiquitous red plastic catsup dispenser appeared one-third full. The bowl of beans eaten by Hambone were appealing, as was the coffee dispensed by Risa. Costumes were period and nicely selected (especially those for Wolf.)
There is little doubt August Wilson has a ‘reserved seat’ in the pantheon of Greatest American Playwrights. Seeing Multi Ethnic Theater’s production of Two Trains Running shows proof of that.
August 2010 GEM OF THE OCEAN
Jorge Portugal SAN FRANCISCO POST
PHENOMENAL – 5 STARS August Wilson’s’ Drama, Gem of the Ocean, Shines Brightly in San Francisco
“What good is freedom if you can’t do nothing with it?” , asks Solly Two Kings, in response to Eli’s philosophical truth, “Freedom is what you make it.” A few minutes later Caesar Wilks is pontificating to Citizen Barlow, “Get you some shoes. Stay out of saloons.” This is the fall of 1904, and three black men are arguing in the parlor and kitchen of Aunt Ester’s house at 1839 Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh, bringing to life different sides of the African-American experience. . A sign on the front door says: “This is a peaceful house and a safe haven for all who visit here.” It had been a station on the Underground Railroad and now the home of Eli, Black Mary and Aunt Ester. “Gem” is brilliantly directed and designed by Lewis Campbell . This is a “must see” for anyone that cares about history, creative arts, social issues, great entertainment, and/or human rights. The small theater, with only 70 seats, places every viewer close to the action.
Flora Lynn Isaacson, The San Francisco Bay Times
Multi Ethnic Theater’s Powerful Gem of the Ocean
Director Lewis Campbell has assembled a superb cast of actors. Kendra Owens, as Aunt Ester, carries herself with the dignity and authority that this ancient woman has earned. Black Mary (Brianne Moore) is the chief cook and bottle washer at the house. One of the great highlights of this play is when she tells her brother Caesar (Bennie Lewis) that she used to love him, but no longer loves him. Another highlight is when she tells off Aunt Ester when Ester complains about her. Also superb is Fabian Herd as Citizen Barlow, whose soul gets cleansed by Aunt Ester. Vernon Medearis’ acting abilities bring to life Solly Two Kings’ stories about how he escaped slavery via an underground railroad to Canada and then returned to save over 60 others from slavery. Also giving first rate performances are Trevor Lawrence as Eli, Aunt Ester’s caregiver, John Jamieson as Rutherford Selig, a white peddler and Bennie Lewis as Caesar, a police man who upholds the law at all costs. All of these actors really listen to one another and have real connection. The director of this fine ensemble production, Lewis Campbell, also designed the wonderfully detailed set which makes us feel as though we are in Aunt Ester’s parlor.
Susan Cohn, San Mateo Daily Journal City Scene August 26, 2010
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, the current production of San Francisco’s Multi Ethnic Theater is delivered full force by an extraordinary ensemble of actors whose characters struggle with inner secrets and tragedies of circumstance that weigh on their souls and twist their lives. The intimacy of the 70-seat Gough Street Playhouse allows the audience the pleasure of seeing every nuance of expression as the drama unfolds.
Audience Comments, from Goldstar Events
☆☆☆☆☆ Gabriela Aranda – Written on Aug 17 2010
The performance was fantastic! I truly enjoyed the actors staying in character; the richness and power of Mr. Wilson’s play was adeptly handled by the actors. I was enthralled at every moment, every turn of events, every new plot twist. I highly recommend this event – the play is long by most standards; it is full of rich, powerful dialogue – and I wish it could have gone on for another act, that’s how much I enjoyed it.
☆☆☆☆☆ AnikaG – Written on Aug 23 2010
August Wilson’s idea of 1 play a decade over the span of 10 decades depicting the African American experience was pure creative genius. The actors in Gem of the Ocean at the Next Stage Theater were incredible. The theater was quaint and inviting. I would definitely see another production there and recommend it to others.
☆☆☆☆☆ Beth S. Eckenrod – Written on Aug 18 2010
This was a very good production of August Wilson’s Play. Yes it is long and full of pithy thoughts and ideas. We are so fortunate to have such good actors and small theatre in San Francisco. I would love to spread the word and get more people out to see this play.
☆☆☆☆☆ Gary Alan Fine – Written on Sep 06 2010
A very impressive production, particularly from a company that defines itself as a community theater. While it is important to put on Wilson’s plays as he wrote them, the play would have been more powerful if shortened about 15-20 minutes, but it was a highly credible production of an important American play.
☆☆☆☆☆ Vicki H. – Written on Aug 30 2010
This was our first visit to this theater. We really enjoyed the play and thought the actors were of the highest caliber! Would highly recommend seeing this play and theater company.
☆☆☆☆ – Written on Aug 27 2010
Great acting! Felt good to support production “off beaten path”. Go see it. Long but strong.
☆☆☆☆ dstern – Written on Aug 27 2010
Solid, intimate theatre – the actors really “went for it” and had a good command of a long, challenging, inspiring play. We recommend it highly. And will stay in touch for future performances by this company.
☆☆☆☆☆ Noelaniec – Written on Aug 24 2010
This was an excellent show. August Wilson – so of course thought provoking and compelling. The acting was great, and there are no bad seats in the theatre. It is too bad that the turn out has not been higher. It is certainly worthy of a larger audience on all levels. I feel lucky to have heard about it!
☆☆☆☆☆ – Written on Aug 23 2010
Don’t miss this. A terrific play at a great price. I’ve told numerous friends about it.
Joshua Medsker SAN FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN
If a fella forgets his song, he forgets who he is,” says Bynum Walker, the voodoo man in the Multi Ethnic Theater’s production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, August Wilson’s play about the children and grandchildren of former slaves. The residents of a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911 struggle through day-to-day life in the years after slavery. The idea of music as both sin and salvation runs strong throughout the play and is duly acknowledged by the players. The production is enjoyable, with strong acting from most of the cast. The straightforwardness and simplicity of the material are well represented, and the small size of the theater space adds to Wilson’s intimate personal drama. The inclusion of beautiful old country blues songs during the intermission is a nice touch.
Doug Konecky AMERICA ON LINE — ENTERTAINMENT
Playwright August Wilson (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson) published Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in 1988. It is the story of a half dozen people who are passing through a Pittsburgh boarding house at the beginning of the 20th Century, told in a series of short vignettes. Seen- it-all Seth Jolley (James Otis Brown) runs the boarding house with the help of his wife Miss Bertha (Peggy Royster) and they are the stabilizing forces around whom the other characters revolve. Excellent performances by Jeremy (LaMott Atkins), Selig (Doug Marshall) and the mesmerizing Loomis (Vernon Medearis), plus the fact that the theater is tiny (64 seats) makes the production feels like an intimate soap opera with good friends as the cast. Everyone rises to the rousing finish.
August 1995 FENCES
Mari Coates SF WEEKLY
Multi Ethnic Theater’s Fences does August Wilson’s drama proud..The plays or August Wilson seem uniquely suited for community theaters, centering as they do on the experience of community itself. Fences, his Tony-winning drama about a family in the late 1950s, is no exception; and Multi Ethnic Theatre’s production (directed by Lewis Campbell), now playing at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, serves both Wilson’s splendid play and the company’s declared purpose “to develop multicultural harmony and appreciation.” Fences takes place in 1957 and depicts the complex experience of the post-World War II years leading up to the civil rights movements of the ’60s. Troy Maxon (Julius Varnado) is a skirt- chasing garbage man who lives from paycheck to paycheck. His life seems reasonably satisfying and orderly. Weekdays he works,trading good- natured complaints with his best friend, Bono (Ronald Hatter). Fridays, he buys a half pint of gin and gets a little tipsy, to the annoyance of his loyal wife, Rose (Victoria Evans). But as ordinary and routine as his life seems, in his own way Troy is a-rebel. As the play opens, he has been summoned to an ominous-sounding “commission” because he dared ask, “Why is the white fellas driving and the coloreds lifting?”
Director Campbell has emphasized ensemble playing over individual fireworks and has succeeded in creating a mood that reaches out to include the audience. As Troy. Julius Varnado gives a quietly powerful performance. At times he bears an almost uncanny resemblance to James Earl Jones. who created the role on Broadway. As Troy’s pal Bono, Ronald Hatter keeps his performance understated, allowing the friendship to serve as a sounding board for Troy’s enthusiasms and humor. Victoria Evans brings a wife of Troy as good as she gets. She and Varnado create a wholly believable relationship. Fabian Herd brings energy and brightness as Gabriel, Troy’s brain-damaged brother. Ali Phelps is fine as Cory. Ditto Shawnte Alexander (alternating with Shoshanna Rosenzweig) as Raynell, Troy’s 10-year-old daughter. The set, handsome and serviceable, was designed by director Campbell.
Winifred Mann THE POTRERO VIEW
August Wilson’s Fences, a moving, funny and thought-provoking slice of American family life in a bygone time and place,brought the packed preview audience to its feet in exuberant appreciation of the Multi Ethnic Theater production directed by Lewis Campbell at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House. The able cast assembled by director Campbell is headed by Julius Varnado as Troy Maxon, head of the family. A middle- aged former Negro Leagues baseball star who never got over having been too old when the game finally began to be integrated, Maxon is now a garbage collector. His disappointment has long since turned to anger. Neither his neat little house, his loving wife, two sons who would like to love him, but can never even win his approval, nor the acceptance of his ever-loyal friend Bono – none of these has the power to assuage his rage. In Maxon, Wilson has created a character with the complexity, the conflicttng passions, the stubborn willfulness almost of a King Lear. Unlike Lear, however, Maxon is gifted with the story-telling skill of his shaman African forbears, along with the earthy wit and humor of some modern day rap artists. It was noteworthy to observe that the large contingent of teenagers in the audience had no difficulty relating to the play, set in a time and place far removed from their own. Clearly Wilson’s broad perspective and deep perceptions and this clear production can bridge the gap of time – as well as of age, gender and color, raising questions as he does, of the meaning of trust and the function of fences? To keep people in – or out?