Review: Fences (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Mar 25 – May 6, 2023
Playwright: August Wilson
Director: Shari Sebbens
Cast: Bert LaBonté, Markus Hamilton, Damon Manns, Molly Moriarty, Zahra Newman, Dorian Nkono, Darius Williams
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review

In 1950s Pittsburgh USA, Troy and Rose try their level best at making a life for themselves and their children. Harsh conditions as evidenced most concretely in discriminatory Jim Crow laws of the time however, means that the couple’s dreams were always going to be dashed, no matter their effort. August Wilson’s Fences deals with the effects of racial subjugation, from the microcosmic perspective of a single family unit, and its inevitable disintegration. As with all great tragedies, we find ourselves rooting for characters, but also simultaneously anticipating their demise. In Fences, we understand that it is not the playwright’s manipulations that prevent the Maxsons from thriving, but the very realities of racism and its accompanying systemic reverberations, that have kept generations of African-Americans from fulfilling their greatest potential.

Powerfully directed by Shari Sebbens, the production speaks pointedly on both the intimate and the broader social contexts, of the Maxson family’s story. The drama works poignantly whether one is concerned with the personal aspects of Fences, or the implications on community, of a far-reaching story like this. Sebbens’ work feels beautifully organic, yet its intricacies are honed with great detail, resulting in a meticulously rendered presentation that always sings naturally and connects profoundly.

Set design by Jeremy Allen transports us somewhere thoroughly believable. Even though the Maxsons’ front yard from 70 years ago only exists in our imagination, what our eyes encounter is something that seems replete with verisimilitude, as are Allen’s costumes, similarly accurate in their depictions of Black life in mid-century Pennsylvania. Verity Hampson’s lights are conservatively, but thoughtfully, calibrated to engender an intense sentimentality, for a play that requires of us, emotional as well as intellectual investment. Sensual and soulful music by Brendon Boney draws from American Blues traditions, so that our sensibilities remain firmly in that historic time and place, one comprising the complex embroilment of bittersweet nostalgia and despicable oppression.

Actor Bert LaBonté delivers sensationally as Troy, with unremitting authenticity and disarming passion. He is heartbreaking yet reprehensible, sympathetic yet frustrating, in his noble portrayals of emasculation and righteous indignation. Zahra Newman brings great vigour to her interpretation of Rose, allowing the feminine half of the Fences story to make an almost comparable impact. Highly engaging is Darius Williams as son Cory, impressively nuanced and exquisitely tender, in a devastating narrative of circular histories. Markus Hamilton too, has us captivated as the mirthful Bono, with perfect timing and an extraordinary presence. Other cast members are Damon Manns, Molly Moriarty and Dorian Nkono, each one more charming than the other, in a show full of persuasive and likeable personalities.

Troy is fixated on his shattered hopes of becoming a professional baseball player of great renown. It is true that no person’s life can be guaranteed happiness ever after, based on the reversal of a singular precedent circumstance. It is also true however, that if racism is not the annihilating force pervasive in so many of our lives, Troy would have achieved not only his heart’s desire, but also a significantly improved existence overall, for himself and for his loved ones. Like Troy, many of us are conditioned to think more about personal failures, than to figure out ways to dismantle those harmful systems, within which all have to operate. Despondency is understandable, but those energies can be turned outwards, negative as they may be, to forge new paths that could bend the arc of history.