Theatre review: Fences, STC Wharf 1 Theatre

Racism and strife in 1950s Black America.

Fences was written in 1985 by US playwright August Wilson. The play won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play. Set in the 1950s, it is the sixth in Wilson’s 10-part ‘Pittsburgh Cycle’. It depicts the life of a working-class black family. The primary themes as confronted by the main character, Troy (Bert LaBonté), the father of the household, deal with problems of black masculinity in the systemic economic and institutional racism of post WWII US.

Troy was a good baseball player, but was held back from being able to play in the major leagues. He carries this a chip on his shoulder, which damages the lives of his family members. Each of the characters is well-drawn, layered and complex. Troy’s sons – Lyons (Damon Manns), a jazz musician, seeking to eke out an existence from playing music, and Cory (Darius Williams), a high school football player – continually seek and fail to get their father’s approval. Troy refuses to go and see Lyons perform and forbids Cory from playing football. Rose (Zahra Newman), his wife, is a model of decent, hardworking motherhood.

Troy’s old friend Bono acts as a foil for Troy’s bitterness. The characters are recognisable archetypes, but their treatment never descends into cliché. The play maintains relevance in 2023 as is evidenced by the need for the Black Lives Matter movement. Although African Americans dominate in the world of so many sports today, institutional racism lives on, and is even enjoying a resurgence via the rise of extreme right wing groups across the Western world.

This production is impeccably directed by Shari Sebbens, with thoughtful, measured performances from all the actors. The play is long, but the rhythm of the drama, the writing and the performances sustain interest throughout. The set of the street frontage of the family house, with a view through a window into the front room of the house, is beautifully crafted and elaborate. The lighting changes are subtle, subdued and naturalistic. This is traditional playmaking at its best.

Everything serves the drama and the story is told with clarity and detail. The emotional arc of the piece hits a nerve and carries the audience throughout. It is affecting stuff. 

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As I was leaving my seat, more emotionally moved than I had anticipated, I mentioned to the person sitting next to me that I had wondered why the STC would be staging a play about African American life in the 1950s in Australia in 2023, when we are continually reminded of the brief of these companies to be of ‘national benefit’, to promote local talent and to tell ‘our stories’. She suggested that it was because it’s a ‘bloody good play’. And that’s exactly what this is: a fine example of the playwright’s craft, staged to a very high standard, with an unfailing commitment to telling the story with as much clarity and affective impact as possible.

Fences by August Wilson
Sydney Theatre Company

Director: Shari Sebbens
Designer: Jeremy Allen
Lighting Designer: Verity Hampson
Composer and Sound Designer: Brendon Boney
Accent Coach: Amani Dorn
Assistant Director: Daley Rangi
Fight Director: Nigel Poulton
Community Engagement Consultant: Cessalee Stovall
Community Engagement Associate: Gabriella Appau

Cast: Bert LaBonté, Markus Hamilton, Damon Manns, Molly Moriarty, Zahra Newman, Dorian Nkono, Liannah Nandi Sibanda, Darius Williams

Fences will be performed until 6 May 2023.

Sarah Liversidge is a journalist and writer from Melbourne with various obsessions including politics, social issues and art in all its forms. She is currently completing a journalism degree at RMIT university where she is an editor at the student run publication, The Swanston Gazette.