“It is a play about life”: Phylicia Rashad discusses Fences

Phylicia Rashad, director of August Wilson's Fences
Phylicia Rashad, director of August Wilson’s Fences

When Phylicia Rashad speaks, people listen. During a recent visit to Long Wharf Theatre to review set designs and tour the space, Rashad spoke with a group of staff members about the power of Fences, the classic play by August Wilson being staged in November on the Mainstage.

She held the room rapt with that famous burnished, warm voice and a commanding, yet gentle presence. “It is a play about life,” Rashad said. “August Wilson took an original person, an everyman, and elevated that person in theatrical importance.”

Esau Pritchett plays Troy Maxson in Fences
Esau Pritchett plays Troy Maxson in Fences

The everyman at the heart of the play is named Troy Maxson, a former Negro League baseball player thwarted from his dreams of playing in the majors by the prejudices of the time period. Now living in Pittsburgh and working as a garbage man, Maxson is dealing with his own son as he grows into his place in the world. “The play is about Troy. Who he is, where he’s come from, how he lives, and what his concerns have been. It’s about the choices he’s made and how he feels about that,” she said.

Portia plays Rose, Troy's wife
Portia plays Rose, Troy’s wife

While Troy is the driver of the piece, the other characters are no less complex. Cory, his son, is pursuing the same athletic goals that so disappointed his father. Rose, his wife, may have thought that she wanted a domesticated life, but is forced in the play to ask the question, at what cost?

“We have relationships with each other as human beings. We label those relationships without necessarily understanding what is deep in the heart of people,” Rashad said. “This is what I’ve always reveled in in these plays, the complexity of humanity.”

Wilson’s work is complex, yet accessible; heartfelt, but occasionally biting. “Everything is significant but it flows as easily as a stream. It’s palpable. You can take it all in,” she said.

Rashad had acted for Wilson in the premiere of Gem of the Ocean. “He was wonderful. He had a style and a way about him. He placed for me in the era of my father. He had a quiet, even and smooth way of asserting his manhood,” she said.

He was a man who respected the theatrical process, Rashad said, and allowed everyone in the room an opportunity to do their jobs to the utmost. “I thought, surely, this must be what it was like for actors to have Shakespeare in the room,” she recalled.

Rashad’s directing career began several years ago when Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, thought she would have a great insight into Gem of the Ocean, then being staged at Seattle Rep. “I hadn’t been thinking about it,” she said.

Gem of the Ocean was followed by other opportunities to explore Wilson’s work, including a highly regarded production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, starring John Douglas Thompson. Rashad now finds herself as one of the go-to interpreters of August Wilson. “I find it pretty amazing that this is happening,” she said.

Steve Scarpa

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