In its 18 years of producing great American plays, Palm Beach Dramaworks had never done one by August Wilson, but that is not veteran local actress Karen Stephens’ fault.
She had long been lobbying for his 1987 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner, Fences, the tale of former Negro League baseball player Troy Maxson and his uneasy relationships with wife Rose and son Cory. Stephens gets her wish – and a juicy role – when the towering work opens this Friday.
Fences has “been something that was on my list for a while,” says Dramaworks’ producing director William Hayes, who stages the production. “But I had to wait until the company had the maturity and the reputation, so I knew that actors would seek me out to do it, because I had some casting concerns. We have a lot of talented black actors in the community, but not an abundance to choose from.”
Hayes did not hesitate in casting Stephens as Rose, but after area auditions and a trip to New York, he still was without a Troy. In part, the problem was the way he saw the role.
“In every great classic play, there’s a moment where we need to see the main character’s vulnerabilities. That material is in this play, but actors tend to gloss over it. They often don’t want to appear vulnerable. For example, at the top of the play, he’s talking about his childhood, when his mother abandoned him and he was beaten by his father. He was out on the street on his own at 14.
“Those are opportunities for us to show seconds of him reliving that and feeling that pain,” says Hayes. “We have to see it, we have to feel it with him. So I was looking for that actor who was willing to go there with me. And understand my interpretation of the role.”
Following his unsuccessful search in New York, Hayes began surfing the internet and found Lester Purry, a Los Angeles-based actor who had played Troy Maxson twice before. After further research on the actor, a lengthy phone conversation with him and some reluctance on Purry’s part, Hayes had the actor he needed.
“I think he was a little taken aback at the idea of doing the role again, because it takes a toll on you,” Hayes says. Still, “He knew he wanted to bring another level to the role.”
“All of what Troy has gone through, the hardening of his heart, is about survival,” explains Purry. The character had been raised to equate showing emotion with weakness. “And weakness in a man in 1957, probably even today, is losing.
“Each time I’ve done this role, I’ve done it differently,” Purry notes. “As Bill and I talked about it, the older you get the more emotional you become. There’s always new discoveries to be found in the character.”
In addition to Fences, Purry has been in four other plays by Wilson, whose writing he greatly admires. “It’s real. It’s spot on. I know these people, the way they speak is truth. The way they walk about in the world is truth. It’s very Shakespearean, you just surf it, you ride it and it will take you there. You don’t have to add anything else to it. As we say in South Carolina,” where Purry grew up, “‘He’s put all the fatback in the beans.’”
On the other hand, this is the first Wilson play that Stephens has been in. “I never had the opportunity before this. Here in South Florida his plays are rarely done,” she concedes. “Like Bill said, I literally begged him to do ‘Fences,’” a play she strongly responded to on the page.
“When I first read ‘Fences,’ I knew these people right away. I knew that long-suffering woman. I knew who she was, that woman who loved this man to distraction, who loved him no matter what. Who stood by him, who supported him despite his imperfections, which were huge,” says Stephen. “I know that state of being. I’ve been there. I know what the pain of disappointment and betrayal is.”
Fences is Wilson’s 1950s play in his 10-play cycle defining the black experience throughout the 20th century. While it has a great deal to say about what it means to be black in Pittsburgh in the early years of desegregation, it also has universal themes.
“Certainly it’s about the black experience, but it’s also about the universal human experience,” says Hayes. “The takeaway is that we have more in common than we have differences.
“I’ve never been discriminated against, but I have a sensitivity to it. At the end of the day, this is a play about family. It’s about a guy my age who has two sons, which I have. I have regrets and resentments. I’ve felt trapped,” adds Hayes. “I really have more in common with Troy than not.”
Why see Fences? “Because it’s a great American story,” responds Purry. “It’s a rare opportunity to see something like this. It’s a true slice of life.”
“I think August Wilson is right up there with the great American playwrights – Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill,” says Stephens. “He was a wordsmith. It’s a chance to sit and listen to these words that he constructed. And to see them brought to life on stage is pretty remarkable.”
FENCES, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach, Friday, March 29-Sunday, April 21. $75. Call 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.