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This article was prepared by LucyAnn Dunlap for the March 13, 2005
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Scaling Those Familial ‘Fences’
Twenty years ago when "Fences" opened on Broadway, it swept up every
major award for best play, capped by the Tony and Pulitzer Prize – and
established August Wilson as a major writer for the theater. Since
then, eight of his plays have astonished Broadway (plus an additional
one Off Broadway,) each set in a different decade, and each an
exploration of the African American experience as it has evolved since
the days of slavery. (This past season’s "Gem of the Ocean" will be
mounted again as part of the McCarter 2005-’06 season.) As a 20th
anniversary homage, a brand new production of "Fences" is at the
Bristol Riverside Theater through Sunday, April 3.
"Fences," set in the 1950s in Pittsburgh, centers on a garbage man,
Troy Maxton, his dreams, his compromises, and his battles for himself
and how this impacts his family, especially one of his sons. Troy had
been an impressive slugger in baseball’s Negro League. Now his
athletic son wants to pursue a professional career in sports. One
reviewer of the Broadway production suggested that he didn’t know
whether the fences Troy was building around his property were to keep
the world out or to keep his family in. Messages from father to son
echo throughout the play.
As part of the preparation for this new mounting, director Keith
Glover and the actors had a session where they each talked about their
fathers, the good and the bad. For example, Glover, talking with me
during his lunch break from rehearsals, remembers that his father
(actually, his stepfather), Woody Phifer, was never on time to
anything. As a result, he says he is "fanatical about arriving on
time." Phifer is a musician and luthier, which is someone who hand
crafts guitars. Glover describes the care his father displays in his
work: "The controls are made of wood. He spends hours sanding until
they are perfect." His father has said, "You know, no one would ever
notice this. I could do this by machine, but it’s important to me to
do it by hand." Glover says this philosophy translates into his own
work as "fanatical preparation."
His use two times of the word "fanatical" is apt as he talks with
tremendous energy about this play, about August Wilson, and about what
he is trying to bring to this production. Glover is a big man whose
energy practically bounces off the walls. He is a triple threat:
director, actor, and playwright. All this informs his work.
Born in 1966 in Birmingham, Alabama, he grew up in nearby Bessemer,
under the watchful eye of his grandparents. Having no television,
storytelling was the family’s entertainment, and it served him in good
stead later. During his youth he bounced back and forth between
Alabama and New York City. "When I’d get in trouble, they’d send me
back." (He continues this dual "citizenship" even today, though now
his time is split between New York and Los Angeles. "My father was a
nomad. It just makes sense," he explains.
Glover has had an impressive career in a rather short time. While
still a teenager, a play he wrote was selected to be performed by the
prestigious Young Playwrights Festival in New York. And for a recent
play, "In Walks Ed," he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A
number of mentors have sped him on his way. Between these two
"watermarks" are numerous acting jobs in regional theaters and
television performances including the soap opera "As the World Turns,"
"Law & Order," and the Fox-created "New York Undercover." He played a
soldier in the Robert De Niro movie "Jackknife." He has directed at a
number of theaters including the Cincinnati Playhouse, Long Wharf
Theater, the Old Globe Theater, GeVa Theater, and Arena Stage, where
he received a Helen Hayes nomination for Outstanding Director of a
As a teenager studying acting, then the only black student at the
Strasberg Theater Institute, he felt a real lack of material for
himself as an actor. So he began writing. When his piece was selected
for the Young Playwrights Festival, he had the opportunity to be
mentored by Stephen Sondheim and Ruth Goetz (author of "The Heiress").
One of the first Broadway plays that Glover saw was "Sweeney Todd." He
had cut school and sneaked down to the Uris Theater to see the
Sondheim musical. He laughs when he recalls that during a performance
of his own first play, "Dancing on Moonlight," he realized in a
particular section of dialogue that he had "cribbed" directly from a
song from that show. Glover has been asked to write a tribute to be
used as part of the upcoming 75th Sondheim birthday celebration.
Glover graduated from Murray Bertraum High School on Pearl Street,
under the Brooklyn Bridge, in lower Manhattan. He went to Bowling
Green State University in Ohio, forgot about writing for a while, and
concentrated on acting. Later, as an actor in touring companies, the
tedium urged him back to writing. In addition to "Moonlight," which
premiered at the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1995, his plays and
musicals also include "Coming of the Hurricane," "Thunder Knocking at
the Door," and "Dark Paradise," as well as "In Walks Ed."
"I began to realize that what I really wanted to do was direct," says
Glover. "So when I was working with another mentor, George C. Wolfe
("Angels in America"), I was let in on a secret: ‘Write the play and
insist on directing it.’ I went, ‘Ding!’"
His 11-year history with August Wilson makes him uniquely prepared to
direct "Fences." He performed in the play two times, playing the role
of the son, and during one of the rehearsal periods had the
opportunity of having Wilson himself in attendance. A lasting
relationship was formed between the two men. Glover says that he
attended "the August Wilson University." During a panel at the
Pittsburg Public Theatre in 1999 that included Wilson, Glover,
director Marion McClinton, and actor/ playwright John Henry Redwood,
Glover says, "August showed me there was room for the real deal on
stage. Hearing August say that you don’t have to lose your integrity
made me get back behind a typewriter knowing that you have to be as
brave as he has been."
His experience as an actor working with great directors – McClinton,
Mark Lamos, Jack O’Brien, Israel Hicks, to name a few – gave him a
chance to study directing from the best. "I asked to watch even if I
hadn’t been called for that rehearsal."
Part of his contract with the Bristol Theater included the stipulation
that he bring with him the designers he has worked with before – and
the result is an A-list production team. Set designer David Gallo has
a number of Broadway credits, including "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and
the last four of Wilson’s plays. Ann Hould-Ward has designed the
costumes for this production. Among her many Broadway credits is a
Tony Award for her costumes for "Beauty and the Beast."
Glover feels that the look and sound of the production are integral to
expressing Wilson’s vision, to hearing "August’s voice." He tells me
that when someone once compared August Wilson to Chekhov, Wilson had
answered, "But Chekhov has not listened to Coltrane." Knowing the best
music for "Fences" comes naturally to Glover. "This was the music of
my father, my mother, and my grandparents." Preparing to direct this
production Glover says he looked to find this influence from legendary
saxophonist John Coltrane. "How can we do that with the scenery, the
costumes? How can we do that musically? ‘Fences’ is set in 1957. This
was a time when Coltrane joined Miles Davis’s quintet. His style of
playing was a flurry of notes, which was a balance to Miles’s use of
space. Jazz uses imperfection, humanness, in a search for the perfect.
That’s what it’s all about. How can we use that to keep us involved in
the story?" When asked what music the audience can expect, Glover
simply smiles and says, "the baddest jazz band out today."
Visually, Wilson has acknowledged his own influence from artist Romare
Beardon. Glover feels that it is up to the director to bring all these
connections together into a whole. "I don’t agree with August Wilson
on everything. There are things that madden me. There are places where
I say, ‘Yes, he’s right.’ In this production I try to be true to
August’s voice." Referring again to a lesson learned from his father,
Glover says, "You don’t really own the creation. You’re connected to
something bigger than you, and it’s up to you to interpret it. There’s
a bit of Shamanism involved.
"Growing up my favorite playwright was Arthur Miller," continues
Glover. "When I was in the fifth grade, I bought a discarded copy of
‘Death of a Salesman’ for 25 cents. I didn’t know what it was, but the
cover spoke to me. I didn’t know about salesmen. I didn’t know about
fathers and sons. But it was like, for me, the clouds parted. and I
felt the writer was writing from an honest and true place."
Glover’s father said, "There’s a room of creativity. You can go in and
hear the greatest operas, the greatest jazz solos, symphonies. You can
see great books and paintings. You walk in and that’s what creativity
is. You can write it down or paint it or play it, but it’s up to you
to bring it out. But you don’t own it. Whenever you think that you are
creating and not honoring the higher, you’ll go to that door and find
that it’s locked." Glover feels that August Wilson is one of those
special people who can go to this room and stay as long as he wants.
In 2000 Glover worked in collaboration with Charles Strouse (of
"Annie" fame) on a revision of the musical adaptation of "Golden Boy,"
which premiered at the Long Wharf Theater in Connecticut. Again, he
had a chance to learn from a master. This continues a history of
"fathers" to "sons" that has marked Glover’s amazing career. Looking
back, he is reminded of a line from "Death of a Salesman:" "Attention
must be paid."
And the tradition continues. He tells of a moment of great
satisfaction when a young man told him, "I used a monologue from
‘Coming of the Hurricane’ to get into college."
Glover is fully aware of the power of the father-child relationship.
"My greatest creation is my daughter," he says of Alena, eight years
old, who lives with her mother in Orlando. (Glover is divorced.) He
says he always spends his opening nights with her, not at the theater.
They play games, like Candyland and Uno. "My worth is measured by how
good I am as a father. In my career, I’ve already gone beyond my
dreams, but I’m open to more. We don’t own it. Take it from God. Take
it from Allah. Give it out. Honor where it’s coming from."
Bristol, 215-785-0100. Pulitzer Prize winning drama by August Wilson.
Through Sunday, April 3. $29 to $37.
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