Somebody’s going to have big shoes to fill.
Shelly Walker and the Richmond Community Theatre’s Board of Directors have made a bold choice by selecting “Fences,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning play written in 1983 by August Wilson,as the third and final play of the 2013-14 season.
“Fences” will feature an all-African-American cast and follow the later stages of the life of Troy Maxson, 53, in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Pa. The play is set in the 1950s and follows Maxson, a former Negro League baseball star still bitter that he never had an opportunity to play in the major leagues due to the color of his skin.
Baseball was segregated during Maxson’s prime playing years and it wasn’t until Maxson’s playing days were behind him that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in April 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. In the play, Maxson laments that he could hit better — in his 50s — than some of the players that were playing then.
“There’s always some sort of magical moment that happens in his shows,” said Walker, a fan of Wilson’s award-winning work. “There’s this moment that transcends reality. It’s really magical.”
There also moments that parallel real life, and members of the audience are sure to experience a roller coaster of laughter and feelings of sadness and despair as they empathize with characters in the play.
Life has taken its toll on the garbage collector, who asks why all the garbage collectors are African-American and all the truck drivers are white. Maxson is told to take his complaint to the union, which he does. His effort results in him being the first black truck driver in the area, “never mind the fact that he doesn’t have a driver’s license when he poses the question,” Walker said.
It’s a role that was portrayed with vivid emotion on Broadway by Denzel Washington in 2010. The story, Walker said, “stands the test of time” with its universal theme of “separate but equal, but which was never equal.”
Maxson, Walker said, is “also a man who grew up with some very difficult family pressure. He wanted to do better.”
As life goes on, Maxson’s teenage son wants to play football in college. But his father forbids it, insisting that nothing but hard work at an ordinary job would pay the bills.
“He will not allow his son to play ball,” Walker said. “He feels like it’s not going to get him anywhere in life. He ends up doing the same thing (as his father did), holding him back based on his own experiences.”
Maxson, she said, “sees the injustices of his own situation … and perpetuates that injustice.”
Auditions for the play, which is set to go on stage in beginning May 15, will be held at the theater at 6:30 p.m. on March 18 and March 19. Normally, the theater is committed to “color-blind casting,” Walker said, “which means that under circumstances of when a play does not necessarily call for a specific race, that we are willing, open and hopeful to see a multitude of culturally (diverse) people coming through our doors.”
But not this time.
“Right now, we’re a community theater of primarily white,” Walker said.
The choice of plays was “very purposefully trying to reach out to see if we can draw more people of various cultural backgrounds into the theater.”
Specifically, the play features a cast of seven characters that the theater is seeking to fill: Troy Maxson, in his 50s or early 60s, wife Rose, in her 40s or early 50s; Jim Bono, in his 40s or 50s; Lyons Maxson, 34, Troy’s oldest son; Gabriel Maxson, 50s or 60s; Cory Maxson, high school football player; and Raynell Maxson, Troy and Rose’s 7-year-old daughter.
The specificity is a “very intentional thing that we’re trying to do,” Walker said.
Theater representatives hope that as the roles are filled, it will help fill the theater with a diverse audience to go along with “the great melting pot of America that we are,” Walker said.
For more information, contact theater officials at 910-997-3765.