Theater Review - Hot August nights

Alliance, True Colors swing for the fences with Wilson plays

As Kenny Leon launches his new national African-American theater, True Colors Theatre Company, with August Wilson’s Fences, his former home playhouse, the Alliance, presents another Wilson play, King Hedley II, on its Hertz Stage. The scheduling seems less like the Alliance trying to steal True Colors’ thunder than an act of friendly competition, with the older institution saluting the new venture of its former star player.

Kent Gash’s staging of Hedley even includes a specific nod to the other play. Fences focuses on a former Negro League baseball star, and Hedley’s set prominently features a billboard with a black ball player on its back fence.

Had Leon remained at the Alliance, he surely would have directed Hedley there himself, so the True Colors/Hertz Stage double-header lets us see how the two theaters each approach the same writer, while measuring Wilson’s early classic against his more recent effort. If neither production is flawless, each crackles with energy, and Fences emerges as the better play, bearing the forward momentum of a freight train. Hedley has a slightly better cast and a script that tends to go in circles. But whirlwinds go in circles, too.

The playwright’s first Pulitzer-winner and most famous work, Fences takes place in Wilson’s native Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Garbage hauler Troy Maxson (Eugene Lee) opposes his son Cory’s (Johnell Easter) potential football scholarship. Having seen his talent gone unrewarded by a segregated sports system, Troy doesn’t want Cory to be similarly burned, and refuses to recognize that society is changing for the better.

Wilson sets King Hedley II three decades later and takes up the problem of black-on-black violence. In a time of senseless, drug-related drive-by shootings, both the title character (Keith Randolph Smith) and his potential father figure Elmore (Ernest Perry Jr.) each served time for murder. The two men subscribe to codes of honor as complex and unassailable as a medieval duelist’s.

King and his sidekick Mister (Geoffrey D. Williams) aspire to open a video store and build better lives. King’s rage, represented by the wicked scar down his cheek, consistently trumps his better judgment, especially when Elmore reveals a secret connection to King’s father’s death.

Both plays showcase Wilson’s exultant use of language, which captures the hilarious give-and-take of masculine banter and include speeches as textured as ancient folk tales. Troy delights in telling whoppers about wrestling death or buying furniture from the devil, while King ends Hedley’s first act with a resounding speech about himself as a larger-than-life badass. Smith vividly lives up to the role as King, his deep voice rumbling like the wrath of God, his sensitive side constantly giving way to his furious instincts.

But the MVPs of the two shows are Fences’ Lee and Hedley’s Perry, each of whom have virtuoso command of Wilson’s musicality. Lee speaks in a rasp like splintering wood and stands with a brawler’s body language. Perry, an 11th-hour replacement for actor Thomas Byrd, has a velvet voice and a cobra’s bearing, conveying the confidence and gift of gab that could sell anybody anything.

Seeing the plays side by side reveals both Wilson’s brilliance as well as a tendency to recycle ideas. With Hedley, the characters keep returning to such subjects as God and Life, like the way King fusses over his flower garden. Each play has a “holy fool” character obsessed with judgment day: Troy’s simple-minded brother Gabriel (Taurean Blacque) in Fences, superstitious Stool Pigeon (Donald Griffin) in Hedley. Each gives the writer a pretext to use biblical language, and are such familiar types throughout his work that you wonder if sooth-saying street people are Pittsburgh fixtures, like the neighborhood watch.

And while the scripts hinge on masculine pride and folly, each has a long-suffering wife who unleashes her fears and frustrations in a wrenching speech. Fences’ Denise Burse gives the production its greatest depth and poignancy, without milking the role for sympathy. In Hedley, Quincy Tyler Bernstine plays King’s wife and while her moment in the spotlight expresses every mother’s terrors, it crosses the line to histrionics.

Kent Gash gives Hedley an almost feverish intensity, and the play includes so many handguns and intimations of violence that you spend the three-hour running time braced for bloodshed. But Fences has the greater staying power. Blacque and Ryan Cameron give one-dimensional performances as Gabriel and Troy’s oldest son, Lyons, respectively, and Leon can’t keep the play’s epilogue from feeling draggy and inessential.

Yet Fences feels like a worthy successor to Death of a Salesman — Wilson may have even surpassed the Arthur Miller play — and sets a high standard for Leon’s work to come with True Colors. Hedley proves that the Alliance will manage just fine without him.