When Esau Pritchett and Portia talk about performing the words of August Wilson, they speak with a certain reverence and perhaps even awe.
They marvel at the complexity of Wilson’s characters, the richness of his language, and emotional depths they have to plumb in order to bring the truth of these everyday people to the stage.
“The key is finding the rhythm of how this works. You start to find the music of it. What I find with August Wilson is that you cannot act it. You have to live it from moment to moment,” said Portia, who is playing Rose in Long Wharf Theatre’s upcoming production of Fences, directed by Phylicia Rashad. The play runs from November 27 through December 22.
“These people, on the page, are so rich and full. They aren’t skeletal. As an actor we have to figure out how to take that off the page and present it to the viewer,” said Esau Pritchett, the actor playing the central role of Troy Maxson.
Portia and Pritchett took a few moments out of rehearsal last week to discuss the relationship between their characters. They were still in the midst of mining the text, searching for new insights that would breathe life into the story of a Negro Leaguer turned garbageman in 1957 searching for his place in the world.
Some theatre experts believe that Troy Maxson, the aforementioned ballplayer, has the scope of Othello or Willy Loman. In short, Troy is one of the titanic characters of the American theatre, a role tackled by performers like James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington on Broadway stages. “He’s a guy born at a time when opportunities for black men were few and far between,” Pritchett said.
The play pivots around the relationship between Troy and his young son Cory. Cory is a sought after football player, and his father is suspicious, and perhaps more than a bit jealous, of the interest in his son’s ability.
“His son is a really really good athlete. Historically speaking the times are changing and his son may have the opportunity to be a professional football player or at least go into the collegiate ranks. But because of his history, he doesn’t think his son will have any chance,” Pritchett said.
Troy’s worldviews are informed by his own family background, one where abuse and abandonment were prevalent. “His father was a sharecropper and he was a kind of abusive person. I would imagine that he didn’t get much love and support as a person. His mom ran out because her husband was abusive. The one thing he did glean from his father was a basic sense of responsibility, which was that the husband, the father is the provider. You go out, make the money, make sure everyone is fed and that the bills are paid, if I do all that, I’m doing my job and that should let everyone know that I love them. But I think he misses a big point that other people around you need nourishment too, they need affirmation,” Pritchett said.
It is love and affirmation that rests at the heart of Rose, Troy’s long suffering wife. “For Rose, family is very important. She comes from a family that is pretty much broken, all half brothers and half sisters. She’s a nurturer and first and foremost is family. She does whatever she can to hold this family together, which turns out to be difficult. She loses herself in the relationship. It’s kind of weird, but I think in losing herself she finds herself,” Portia said.
Rose is forced to make very serious decisions – and sacrifices – in order to preserve her family. “I realize that Rose is very complex. She’s very deep,” Portia said. “She nurtures. She gives. She loves. She wanted to be a wife and a mother. She wanted to have a home.”
While the performers carefully examine the text for clues about their characters’ thoughts and motivations, there is a moment in every rehearsal process where they put aside their research and their thinking and move themselves into an open, emotional state. “The great thing about doing theatre is that is will change day to day, performance to performance. It will feel one way one time and quite different the next,” Portia said.
— Steve Scarpa