In Virginia Rep’s current presentation of August Wilson’s Fences, director Tawnya Pettiford-Wates shows the heart of a black family’s struggle to keep the lingering effects of racism from pulling them apart.
From one of the largest performing arts organizations in Central Virginia comes a story of legacy, family, responsibility, honor, duty, and love. This month, Virginia Repertory Theatre presents famous playwright August Wilson’s Fences.
This play, originally presented in 1985, tells the story of Troy Maxson, a sanitation worker in 1950s Pittsburgh whose skin color denied his dream of playing baseball in the majors. Years later, his relationship with his son turns bitter when his son wants his own chance to play ball. Troy attempts to get a better position as a truck driver and shows love to his wife, but also looks down with resentment toward his two sons. Over the course of the play, the audience sees that Troy’s insecurities wall off his emotions and diminished dreams, like a fence surrounds a piece of property.
Directing Fences for Virginia Rep is Tawyna Pettiford-Wates; Pettiford-Wates is a playwright, director, actor, poet, and writer, in addition to being an associate professor at VCU. She was thrilled at the opportunity to direct the production, in order to bring a nuanced female perspective to it.
“When I first encountered Fences years ago, I felt that the female character was not very present in the story,” said Pettiford-Wates. “That is certainly not the case in this production.”
Pettiford-Wates has had a prolific life in entertainment and theater production. In 2001, she founded the non-profit social justice arts organization The Conciliation Project, which tries to undo racism through performances that show how systems are tied to the nation’s racist beginnings. She brings this insightful perspective to her take on Fences.
“I want the audience to experience the story as if they are witnesses to it,” said Pettiford-Wates. “I want them to be inside the story as we explore a family’s struggle with the everyday obstacles and challenges of life, love, and family.”
Pettiford-Wates has another big reason to be excited about directing this play — for her, directing all ten plays of August Wilson’s Century Cycle, of which Fences is one, is part of her creative “bucket list.”
“Each and every August Wilson play is not only a history lesson, it is also the full embrace of the rich cultural and artistic continuum of African American people,” said Pettiford-Wates. “Wilson’s words are like jazz on stage; he is one of American theatre’s best storytellers.”
The cast features an array of talent making their Virginia Repertory Theatre debut, including James Craven as Troy Maxson and Lisa Strum as Rose Maxson.
28-year-old actor Jamar Jones, a Richmond native, takes on the role of Cory, a high school football star with professional league ambitions. In Fences, Cory develops a complicated relationship with his father, whose own athletic dreams were crushed.
“Many of us can relate to challenging family dynamics and the desire to fulfill long-standing childhood dreams,” said Jones.
In preparation for the role, Jones received coaching to swing a baseball bat, watched wood sawing tutorials, watched footage of old football games, and explored his vocal range in order to embody both a high school youth and a man with life experiences.
“Cory was one of the first characters that I was introduced to when I began to take theatre seriously in high school,” said Jones. “I’ve performed monologues as this character for years. So to finally be able to do this play is truly a gift.”
Virginia Rep, located at 114 W Broad St, will be showing the production ten more times through Sunday, March 1. Ticket prices range from $30 to $54, and they can be purchased on Virginia Rep’s website.
Photos by Jason Collins, via Virginia Repertory Theatre/Facebook