Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****
It's 1957 in Fences, the Pulitzer Prize-winning sixth chapter of August Wilson's 10-play cycle chronicling 20th century African-American life. This was the year nine black students integrated Little Rock's Central High School and Hank Aaron's home run clinched the pennant for the Milwaukee Braves.
Change is coming but in this compelling production at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, directed by Kenny Leon, Wilson shows us how difficult it can be to break with the past.
As Troy Maxson, the play's main character, John Beasley is a commanding presence. He's a burly 53-year-old Pittsburgh garbage collector whose life experiences have made him hard and bitter. He can be funny and loving and cruel and thoughtless. He drinks too much and fools around but he has a deep sense of obligation toward his family.
And the supporting cast is equally terrific, including Crystal Fox, powerful in an understated way as Maxson's long-suffering wife, Rose, who tries to keep her family together; Warner Miller as his teenage son Cory, yearning for his father's approval; a very sweet Bill Nunn as his brother Gabriel, who suffered a head wound in World War II and believes he's the angel Gabriel; Brandon J. Dirden as his freewheeling older son Lyons; and Eugene Lee as Maxson's easygoing buddy Jim Bono, who often tries to talk some sense into his friend.
This is my second August Wilson play. I saw Joe Turner's Come and Gone, set in 1911, on Broadway in June. While I enjoyed that one a little more - it seemed to move a bit faster - Troy Maxson is one of the most complex and interesting of Wilson's characters that I've seen so far.
Maxson once played baseball in the Negro League but missed out on the game's integration, a fact that's central to this story. He angrily denies Cory a chance to meet with a college football recruiter because "the white man ain't gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway."
At first, I couldn't understand why the son of a sharecropper wouldn't be thrilled at the prospect of his son winning a scholarship. But this was a time when a college degree was no guarantee of success for a black man in America, when black men were only allowed to work on the backs of garbage trucks in Pittsburgh, not drive them. (And even when they finally do get to drive them, it can be lonely up front.)
Even the set design, by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, a two-story brick house set in the back of an alley, with a small dirt yard, gives the impression that this is a closed-off, separate world.
Behind Maxson's anger, his harshness, is a desire to protect his son in the only way he knows how, the only way he can imagine. He wants Cory to learn a trade - building houses or fixing cars, "that way you have something can't nobody take away from you."
In some ways, this is a story about a generational shift. To men of Maxson's generation who came through the Great Depression, the purpose of work was to provide for your family. Whether or not you liked your job didn't enter into the equation.
Near the end of the play, Rose tells Cory: "Your daddy wanted you to be everything he wasn't ... and at the same time he tried to make you into everything he was. I don't know if he was right or wrong ... but I do know he meant to do more good than he meant to do harm."
Wilson is an absorbing storyteller who explores African-American history without seeming forced or preachy. Maxson isn't a one-dimensional tyrant or a stereotypical "angry black man." As the play went on, layers were added and I understood more of what made him so unique, so flawed, so human.
The Huntington had a long relationship with Wilson, who died of liver cancer in 2005. In the theatre's Limelight magazine, there's a list of the plays in the century cycle and the season each was staged - except one, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, set in 1920s Chicago, which is "upcoming."
You know I'll be there.
Meanwhile, you've got one week left to see Fences, which closes Oct. 11.