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It’s tempting to say that The Justice Theater Project hits a home room with its passionate performance of Fences, African-American playwright August Wilson’s 1987 Tony Award®- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Tempting, but wrong. This dramatic long-ball production clips the top of the centerfield fence and falls back into the field of play, a ground-rules triple.
Fences is part of dramatist August Wilson’s 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle,” all but one of which are set in various decades in the Hill District, an African-American neighborhood in the Steel City. Fences, which opens in 1957, represents life in the Hill District in the 1950s, when black garbage men, such as Troy Maxson (John Rogers Harris) and Jim Bono (Lester Hill), had to risk their jobs by filing grievances with the union to break the age-old pattern of discrimination which resulted in whites always driving the garbage trucks and blacks always doing all the heavy lifting in back.
The Justice Theater Project’s artistic director, Deb Royals Mizerk, has cast this production superbly, and coaxed incendiary performances from her leads and charismatic characterizations from most of the rest of her supporting cast. John Harris really struts his stuff as embittered ex-Negro Leaguer and ex-con Troy Maxson; and Barbette Hunter adds a gutsy, heart-wrenching portrayal of Troy’s wife, Rose, whom he deeply wounds with his infidelities after 18 years of marriage.
Jade Arnold smolders convincingly as Maxson’s athletically gifted but emotionally immature younger son Cory, whom his father prevents from playing college football, perhaps out of jealousy or maybe just out of sheer meanness. Lester Hill starts slowly, but quickly gets up to speed as Troy’s best friend, drinking buddy, and confidant, Jim Bono, who served hard time with Troy and now works beside him as a garbage man; and Thomasi McDonald steals the show with his outrageous antics as Maxson’s mentally unhinged brother, a wounded World War II veteran who has taken the name of the angel Gabriel, carries a trumpet with him everywhere he goes, and — when happy — dances and prances around like an ecstatic child on the first day of summer vacation.
Only Tyrone Hicks strikes out as Troy’s ne’er-do-well older son Lyons. Hicks sleepwalks through the role of a struggling musician who only seems to stop by to see his daddy when he is broke and needs a handout. Hicks is just too nonchalant about his acting and so soft-spoken that he quickly fades into the background when he plays opposite the candle power of stars John Harris and Barbette Hunter and their luminous co-stars. Although they are too big to play Troy Maxon’s seven-year-old illegitimate daughter Raynell, 14-year-old Maya Bryant and 11-year-old Rachel Woods Barnes, who as alternate in the role, make a more vivid impression than Hicks.
Fences will complete its three-week run on February 19-21 and 26-28 in Pittman Auditorium at St. Mary’s School in Raleigh, NC. For details, please see our theatre calendar.