In August Wilson's "Fences," James Earl Jones plays a man with principles in a world where they don't matter, a man hedged in both when he lives up to his principles and when he violates them. It is a powerful play, and one of Jones' most impressive performances.
"Fences" is set in the Midwest in 1957, seemingly a time of change for black Americans. Jones plays Troy Maxson, a man whose career as a baseball player in the black leagues never led anywhere. His bitterness about his own lost opportunities leaves him unable to imagine anything better for his son.
"I don't want him to be like me," he says. "I want him to move as far from me as he can." But his obstinacy defeats his aspirations for his son. With the best of intentions he manages to limit his family's horizons at a time when they should be broadening. The fence he belatedly builds for his wife takes on a heartbreaking symbolism.
As in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," Wilson's dialogue has a deeply musical quality. When the mood is hopeful, Maxson's conversations seem like riffs in a spirited jam session. When the action becomes tense, the cadences, particularly his wife's, become mournful, like the drawn out lament of a blues singer.
Wilson is one of the few American playwrights you can call a poet. His characters are simple bu deeply felt, and his language enobles their troubling lives.
Director Lloyd Richards has assembled a cast that gives Wilson's characters enormous dignity and strength. Mary Alice is radiant as the woman who tries to bring solace to her husband's stormy life. Courtney B. Vance gives a riveting performance as the son broken by his father's rigidity, especially moving when he shows how, against his own will, he has become his father.
There are joyous performances by Ray Aranha as the friend, Charles Brown as the older son and especially Frankie R. Faison as the halfwit brother.
Towering above all of them is Jones, who bounds onto the stage bursting with life, boasting of how he outwitted Death, but whose last entrance shows us a man defeated by life, colorless, sagging under the weight of his failures.
James D. Sandefur's set is a masterly portrayal of genteel urban poverty, though unimaginatively lit. At times the play seems longer than necessary, but it is a blockbuster piece of theater, a major American play passionately performed.
Once in a rare while, you come across a play - or a movie or a novel - that seems to break away from the confines of art into a dense, complex realization of reality. A veil has been torn aside, the artist has disappeared into a transparency. We look with our own eyes, feel with our own hearts.
That was my reaction to August Wilson's pulsing play "Fences," which opened last night at the 46th Street Theater, with James Earl Jones in full magnificent cry heading a cast of actors as good as you could find anywhere.
I wasn't just moved. I was transfixed - by intimations of a life, impressions of a man, images of a society.
Wilson, who a couple of seasons back gave us the arresting but fascinatingly flawed "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," always insists in interviews that he is writing from the wellspring of black experience in America.
This is undoubtedly true. Had Wilson been white, his plays would have been different - they would have had a different fire in a different belly.
But calling Wilson a "black" playwright is irrelevant. What makes "Fences" so engrossing, so embracing, so simply powerful, is his startling ability to tell a story, reveal feeling, paint emotion.
In many respects, "Fences" falls into the classic pattern of the American realistic drama - a family play, with a tragically doomed American father locked in conflict with his son. Greek tragedy with a Yankee accent.
The timing of the play - the late '50s - is carefully pinpointed in the history of black America as that turning point in the Civil Rights movement when a dream unfulfilled became a promise deferred.
The hero is Troy Maxson - and I suggest that he will be remembered as one of the great characters in American drama, and Jones always recalled as the first actor to play him.
Troy is as complex and as tormented as black America itself. He started life as a refugee from the South, and as a thief and eventually, a killer.
Life in a penitentiary gave him the iron determination to reshape his life - as did, later, a feverish brush with death.
Prison also taught him baseball; when he came out, he became a temperamental star of the Negro Leagues. And now - in 1957 - he can look at the likes of Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron, making it in the Major Leagues of big-time whiteball, with a mixture of anger, envy and contempt.
A garbage collector, Troy has typically had to fight through his union to become the first black driver of a garbage truck. Equally typically, he hasn't even got a driver's license.
He sees himself as a man fenced in with responsibilities, but he has created some of those fences himself - some intended to keep people out, some to keep people in.
He is a family man - with a second wife, Rose, and their son Cory, as well as Gabriel, his brother, half-crazed by a war injury, and Lyons, Troy's older son by a previous marriage.
His life is secure - but limited. His son wants to go to college on a football scholarship, but Troy, wary of professional sports, refuses to let him try his luck.
Troy - although fully aware of his wife's qualities and warned by his best friend, Jim - falls in love with a younger woman, who becomes pregnant.
What is particularly pungent about Wilson's play is how the story and the characters are plugged into their particular historic relevance, ranging from the lessons of prison to the metaphors of baseball. It is this that makes the play resonate with all its subtle vibrations of truth and actuality.
This is in no sense a political play - but quite dispassionately it says: This is what it was like to be a black man of pride and ambition from the South, trying to live and work in the industrial North in the years just before and just after World War II.
The writing is perfectly geared to its people and its place. It jumps from the author's mind onto the stage, its language catching fire in the rarefied atmosphere of drama.
However fine the play is - and it is the strongest, most passionate American dramatic writing since Tennessee Williams - no praise can be too high for the staging by Lloyd Richards.
Helped by the cinematic accuracy of James D. Sandefur's setting, Richards has made the play into a microcosm in which we can see the tiny reflections of parts of ourselves, parts of America and parts of history.
He gives every actor a sense of purpose and belonging - and makes the play their nightly story. Wonderful acting, but also marvelous direction.
James Earl Jones remakes himself in Troy's image. It is a performance of such astonishing credibility that it offers the audience a guilty sense of actually spying on the character, unobserved and unwanted.
But this is only one performance of note; in her way, Mary Alice, as Troy's wife, is just as powerful, her pain and reality just as painfully real. And then there is Courtney B. Vance as Troy's alienated son, another performance of bewildering truth and honesty.
Add to these Ray Aranha, Charles Brown, Frankie F. Faison, and Karima Miller, and you have an ensemble cast as good as you will ever find.
"Fences" gave me one of the richest experiences I have ever had in the theater.
To hear his wife tell it, Troy Maxson, the middle-aged Pittsburgh sanitation worker at the center of ''Fences,'' is ''so big'' that he fills up his tenement house just by walking through it. Needless to say, that description could also apply to James Earl Jones, the actor who has found what may be the best role of his career in August Wilson's new play, at the 46th Street Theater.
But the remarkable stature of the character - and of the performance - is not a matter of sheer size. If Mr. Jones's Troy is a mountainous man prone to tyrannical eruptions of rage, he is also a dignified, delicate figure capable of cradling a tiny baby, of pleading gravely to his wife for understanding, of standing still to stare death unflinchingly in the eye. A black man, a free man, a descendant of slaves, a menial laborer, a father, a husband, a lover - Mr. Jones's Troy embraces all the contradictions of being black and male and American in his time.
That time is 1957 - three decades after the period of Mr. Wilson's previous and extraordinary ''Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.'' For blacks like Troy in the industrial North of ''Fences,'' social and economic equality is more a legal principle than a reality: the Maxsons' slum neighborhood, a panorama of grimy brick and smokestack-blighted sky in James D. Sandefur's eloquent design, is a cauldron of busted promises, waiting to boil over. The conflagration is still a decade away - the streetlights burn like the first sparks of distant insurrection - so Mr. Wilson writes about the pain of an extended family lost in the wilderness of de facto segregation and barren hope.
It speaks of the power of the play - and of the cast assembled by the director, Lloyd Richards - that Mr. Jones's patriarch doesn't devour the rest of ''Fences'' so much as become the life force that at once nurtures and stunts the characters who share his blood. The strongest countervailing player is his wife, Rose, luminously acted by Mary Alice. Rose is a quiet woman who, as she says, ''planted herself'' in the ''hard and rocky'' soil of her husband. But she never bloomed: marriage brought frustration and betrayal in equal measure with affection.
Even so, Ms. Alice's performance emphasizes strength over self-pity, open anger over festering bitterness. The actress finds the spiritual quotient in the acceptance that accompanies Rose's love for a scarred, profoundly complicated man. It's rare to find a marriage of any sort presented on stage with such balance - let alone one in which the husband has fathered children by three different women. Mr. Wilson grants both partners the right to want to escape the responsibilities of their domestic drudgery while affirming their respective claims to forgiveness.
The other primary relationship of ''Fences'' is that of Troy to his son Cory (Courtney B. Vance) - a promising 17-year-old football player being courted by a college recruiter. Troy himself was once a baseball player in the Negro Leagues - early enough to hit homers off Satchel Paige, too early to benefit from Jackie Robinson's breakthrough - and his bitter, long-ago disappointment leads him to decree a different future for his son. But while Troy wants Cory to settle for a workhorse trade guaranteeing a weekly paycheck, the boy resists. The younger Maxson is somehow convinced that the dreams of his black generation need not end in the city's mean alleys with the carting of white men's garbage.
The struggle between father and son over conflicting visions of black identity, aspirations and values is the play's narrative fulcrum, and a paradigm of violent divisions that would later tear apart a society. As written, the conflict is also a didactic one, reminiscent of old-fashioned plays, black and white, about disputes between first-generation American parents and their rebellious children.
In ''Ma Rainey'' - set at a blues recording session - Mr. Wilson's characters were firecrackers exploding in a bottle, pursuing jagged theatrical riffs reflective of their music and of their intimacy with the Afro-American experience that gave birth to that music. The relative tameness of ''Fences'' - with its laboriously worked-out titular metaphor, its slow-fused Act I exposition - is as much an expression of its period as its predecessor was of the hotter 20's. Intentionally or not - and perhaps to the satisfaction of those who found the more esthetically daring ''Ma Rainey'' too ''plotless'' - Mr. Wilson invokes the clunkier dramaturgy of Odets, Miller and Hansberry on this occasion.
Such formulaic theatrical tidiness, while exasperating at times, proves a minor price for the gripping second act (strengthened since the play's Yale debut in 1985) and for the scattered virtuoso passages throughout. Like ''Ma Rainey'' and the latest Wilson work seen at Yale (''Joe Turner's Come and Gone,'' also promised for New York), ''Fences'' leaves no doubt that Mr. Wilson is a major writer, combining a poet's ear for vernacular with a robust sense of humor (political and sexual), a sure instinct for crackling dramatic incident and a passionate commitment to a great subject.
Mr. Wilson continues to see history as fully as he sees his characters. In one scene, Troy and his oldest friend (played with brimming warmth by Ray Aranha) weave an autobiographical ''talking blues'' - a front-porch storytelling jaunt from the antebellum plantation through the pre-industrial urban South, jail and northward migration. ''Fences'' is pointedly bracketed by two disparate wars that swallowed up black manhood, and, as always with Mr. Wilson, is as keenly cognizant of its characters' bonds to Africa, however muted here, as their bondage to white America. One hears the cadences of a centuries-old heritage in Mr. Jones's efforts to shout down the devil. It is a frayed scrap of timeless blues singing, unpretty but unquenchable, that proves the overpowering cathartic link among the disparate branches of the Maxson family tree.
Under the exemplary guidance of Mr. Richards - whose staging falters only in the awkward scene transitions - the entire cast is impressive, including Frankie R. Faison in the problematic (but finally devastating) role of a brain-damaged, horn-playing uncle named Gabriel, and Charles Brown, as a Maxson son who falls into the sociological crack separating the play's two principal generations. As Cory, Courtney B. Vance is not only formidable in challenging Mr. Jones to a psychological (and sometimes physical) kill-or-be-killed battle for supremacy but also seems to grow into Troy's vocal timbre and visage by the final scene. Like most sons, Mr. Vance just can't elude ''the shadow'' of his father, no matter how hard he tries. Such is the long shadow Mr. Jones's father casts in ''Fences'' that theatergoers from all kinds of families may find him impossible to escape.