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Plays about the ordinariness of daily American life have fallen out of style recently, or at least that’s the way it seems on local stages. As contemporary playwrights break down dramatic conventions and use their work to draw attention to current events or serious issues plaguing society, stories about people going through the ins and outs of their days are less common. Perhaps this is why the two local productions of plays by August Wilson, an artist who celebrated the regular people of Pittsburgh’s Hill District in his 10-play “Century Cycle,” feel so comforting and so spectacular. Utilizing excellent actors who in their best moments do not play their characters so much as they become them, Ford’s Theatre’s Fences and Arena Stage’s Jitney honor Wilson and the everyday drama he carefully crafted.
Fences is probably Wilson’s most visible play. The only Wilson work so far to have been adapted for the big screen, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Revival of a Play. In it, we meet the Maxson family: Troy (Craig Wallace), his wife, Rose (Erika Rose), and their son, Cory (Justin Weaks), as well as Troy’s older son, Lyons (KenYatta Rogers), his brother Gabriel (Jefferson A. Russell), and his friend and colleague Jim Bono (Doug Brown). It’s 1957, and in the backyard of Troy and Rose’s home, all seems well. We quickly learn that Troy, a garbage collector, is a principled man, unafraid to stick his neck out and ask his boss why all the truck drivers are white while the black men are left emptying cans into the back of the truck.
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These principles come with a cost, though. Troy, whose dreams of baseball stardom were never realized, won’t indulge his sons’ dreams, even when a college recruiter offers Cory a football scholarship and a path out of Pittsburgh. He struggles every day to maintain his working class lifestyle, and after nearly two decades, that struggle has blinded him. While he’s worked, life has passed him by.
This generational divide creates much of the play’s central tension and places a heavy emotional burden on the actors. Wallace is well known to local audiences for playing men who the world has worn down—he’s played Willy Loman and Ebenezer Scrooge at Ford’s previously—and he captures Troy’s weariness and anger, as well as his obligation to and compassion for those he loves, even if he never says it. It’s Weaks’ turn as Cory, however, that shakes the audience. He exudes desperation as he asks for his father’s affection, and later, his mother’s acceptance of his decisions.
Acting opposite Wallace, whose booming voice and broad chest make him an imposing counterpart, is hard enough, but Weaks manages to win his argument and make his points heard while contending with the old theater’s iffy acoustics. By the end of the evening, his heartbreak is our heartbreak.
Similarly heartbreaking is Rose, who tolerates all the misbehaving men in her life until she can take it no longer. The scene in which she breaks down is a tour de force and Rose executes it convincingly. (One does wish that Viola Davis’ rendition of the same scene was played less frequently during her Oscar campaign, if only to eliminate the opportunity for comparison.)
Wilson’s writing is so compelling and well paced that when the cast clicks like this one does, little else seems important. That’s a testament to director Timothy Douglas, who has built a family whose intimate struggles become universal in his hands. Scenic designer Lauren Helpern has turned the stage into a believable Pittsburgh backyard and costume designer Helen Huang’s clothes highlight the ordinariness of the characters who wear them.
The Maxsons’ problems are not unique, and the consequences of them don’t extend far beyond the backyard, and yet Fences destroys audiences because it is so relatable. In Troy, we see the desire to care for those we love. In Rose, we see steely determination. And in Cory, we see the flickering flame of a dream. Watching them play out their conflicts is as transfixing as looking in a mirror.
The work family in Jitney occupies a unlicensed cab station in 1970s Pittsburgh, a time when traditional cabs wouldn’t visit the city’s historically black neighborhoods. The men who populate it—some of them community leaders, some of them scarred and weary war veterans, some of them neighborhood gossips and recreational alcoholics—have their own reasons for doing this work, but come back day after day to drink coffee and participate in this unofficial fraternity.
Many of the actors in this production are part of the unofficial fraternity of Wilson performers and participated in director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s 2017 Broadway production of Jitney, and this contributes to the evening’s relaxed feel. The performers know their characters, and each other, intimately at this point and that makes their telling even more realistic. When a piece of a prop telephone broke during a recent performance, it resulted in a giggle fit, but the show continued seamlessly.
The world the performers create feels so real in part because the problems the characters encounter still exist, in slightly different forms, today, more than four decades after the play takes place. Sure, ride-hailing apps have made getting from place to place easier, but black businesses still deal with gentrification and government-forced development. The choice to stay or go isn’t easy for Becker (Steven Anthony Jones), the car service’s owner, nor is it easy for the longtime proprietors of businesses in Shaw, who told their stories in this publication two months ago.
When these businesses do close, a piece of the community’s culture dies with it. Wilson’s plays preserve pieces of it, reminding audiences who don’t remember a time when people relied on these unlicensed cabs why these ordinary men and women matter. Turnbo (Ray Anthony Thomas) may gossip and pick fights with Youngblood (Amari Cheatom), but his knowledge of his neighbors and surroundings keeps their stories alive. Fielding (Anthony Chisholm) frequently swigs from a bottle of gin he keeps in his jacket, but his stories of crafting suits for performers like Billy Eckstine recall a time of debonair grandeur.
The people seeing these productions view them as the city around them changes. While the plays may force difficult thoughts and conversations about everything from incarceration rates to technology, equality, and independent contracting, they remind us why plays about ordinary people are important. They teach us, reflect history back to us, and maybe encourage us to change, ever so slightly, for the better.
Fences runs to Oct. 27 at 511 10th St. NW. $10–$72. (202) 347-4833. fords.org.
Jitney runs to Oct. 27 at 1101 6th St. SW. $41–$95. (202) 488-3300. arenastage.org.