As the American theater grapples with making more inclusive spaces on and off stage, the Omaha Community Playhouse mounts its first production of an August Wilson play, “Fences,” Jan. 20-Feb. 12 on the Hawks Mainstage.
Two leading Omaha theater artists, Denise Chapman and TammyRa’, are co-directing.
Critics may note OCP should long ago have embraced Wilson, but in this better-later-than-never move it’s filling a gap left by the John Beasley Theater & Workshop’s closure a decade ago. JBT produced Wilson’s entire ten-play American Century Cycle.
Wilson plays have been absent locally since, which is why TammyRa’ said, “This is a really big deal.” As a JBT stock player, she acted in five Wilson works, including “Fences” twice. “To help be able to bring this story alive from a different side is wonderful and exciting,” she added.
The acclaimed drama of embittered former Negro Leagues player Troy Maxson, long-suffering wife Rose, best friend Bono, sons Cory and Lyons and brother Gabriel is perhaps Wilson’s best-known work.
“So much is covered in this one play,” TammyRa’ said. “It talks about infidelity, family, losses, broken dreams, endurance, strength, friendship, life, death, spirituality. It definitely takes you on a journey. August has a definite rhythm and style to his language. It’s like poetry.”
OCP’s collaborating with The Union for Contemporary Art, Great Plains Theatre Commons and Metropolitan Community College on opening weekend programs related to Wilson’s themes and craft. Guest panelists include Wali Jamal, an actor who’s performed in all Wilson’s plays, and theater scholar Khalid Long, dramaturgical consultant for the show.
“My association with August’s work has changed my life and enhanced my entire career,” Jamal said. “It is an honor and a privilege to have performed in so much of his work. One of the reasons I’ve been able to perform in all of his plays is that I’m a character actor. I’m nobody’s leading man. I love to support. I’ve played the good guys, the bad guys.”
“‘Fences’ was not necessarily August’s favorite play,” Long said, “but I think in many ways it’s the most accessible. He had just produced ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ on Broadway to great acclaim, and then he was critiqued. Critics said he was unable to write this Great American Play in the tradition of Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Lorraine Hansberry that centers one person in the tensions and issues of the characters and times. And he set out to prove them wrong with ‘Fences.’ In many ways it’s his most accessible play because it follows the Great American formula.”
Like “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” “Death of a Salesman” and “A Raisin in the Sun,” it revolves around a central protagonist’s internal and external struggles with life, family, friends, job, social ills. The dramatic arc of “Fences,” like the others, reads like an American tragedy. Characteristic of Wilson, Long said, “‘Fences’ looks at the everyday person or Everyman. And that is what makes it so personal and intimate – looking at the vulnerabilities, joys, frustrations of being a Black American, acknowledging American history hovers over the story.”
Because it’s set in the 1950s, he said, “We’re looking at the development of the civil rights movement with regard to equal employment and so forth, at the Negro Leagues, which was quite important and popular at that time, at Black education through his son Cory, at the emergence of Black art through his other son Lyons.” While Wilson doesn’t specifically address the movement or protests, Long said: “If we link what’s happening in the play to greater details of American history, it is clearly evident.”
Unable to move past his indiscretions and traumas, Maxson destroys himself as his friends and family look helplessly on. “It’s really sad,” Jamal said.
Nothing less than full humanity is laid bare.
“August Wilson built roles for Black men that have dignity,” Jamal said. “He never failed to point out the dignity that these characters – all of them – possess. It’s never neglected.”
Jamal calls Maxson “a very challenging role.” Newcomer Anthony Montegut essays the role at OCP. Stage veteran Kerri Forrester plays Rose.
The depiction of women in Wilson plays has been criticized, which is why Long said, “I feel it’s important we have two Black women directing this work. As they think about the way Black women show up in his work, I’m providing information to help them curate that.”
TammyRa’ is eager to explore the female perspective and how Wilson’s “women characters endure, they go through things, and they still come out strong.”
For Jamal, Wilson plays offer an indispensable window into the human condition through their “poignant, historical and socially substantive themes.”
“He covers it, he just does, and in such entertaining ways. That’s why he’s known as our Shakespeare, not Black people’s Shakespeare, the American Shakespeare. That’s him.”
Indeed, Long said, “Many people are unfamiliar with the depth of his work and what he was attempting to do with his plays and social activism through drama and theater. He was pushing towards a just world, especially within the context of theater and performance.”
Indicative of that, Jamal said Wilson signed a script of “Jitney” for him and wrote under his name: “The struggle continues.” Jamal said Wilson’s legacy is “claiming what is yours and knowing your history.”
“If you don’t know where you’ve been,” Jamal said, echoing Wilson, “you really have no idea where you’re going.”
For opening weekend details, visit omahaplayhouse.com/productions/august-wilsonsfences/.
“Fences” Community Events
Friday Jan. 20, 2023
Pre-show Lecture & Panel Discussion with scholar Khalid Long, actor Wali Jamal and directors Denise Chapman and TammyRa’
Omaha Community Playhouse, Hawks Mainstage
Free and open to the public. No reservation required.
Opening night of August Wilson’s “Fences”
OCP Hawks Mainstage
Post-show opening night celebration
OCP Owen Lobby
Free and open to the public. No reservations required.
Saturday Jan. 21, 2023
“Deepening Your Creative Practice” Theatre and Playwriting Workshops
Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha Campus, Building 22
Chopped: The Playwright’s Edition
Kim Louise, Facilitator
Call & Response: August Wilson Workshop
Khalid Long, Facilitator
The August Wilson Artists’ Corner
Wali Jamal, Facilitator
Sunday Jan. 22, 2023
“On the Ground on Which I Stand”
Union for the Contemporary Art
Screening of feature-length documentary about August Wilson followed by talk-back