History over the fence 

Uplifted by Soweto

Arkansas Repertory Theatre
Feb. 2

I can admit it: I cried. Three times. That I counted.

But “Fences” is not simply a sad play; there’s nothing maudlin about it. It is a serious one, though. It’s an incredible history lesson, a close reading of familial relationships, an almost painfully thorough examination of failure, and a good and great dose of hope.

August Wilson’s Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play, a part of his 10-part series on African-American life and focusing on 1950s urban life, is fantastically turned out by the Rep with a talented cast and amazing set, both of which serve to highlight the gorgeous script.

Troy Maxson (Gerard Catus), former Negro Baseball League star, ex-con, trash man and profoundly unhappy family man, owns the first act. He is the first to literally come booming onto the stage, and fascinates with his enormous frame and dominating voice that fluctuates from teller of tall tales to angry, lost soul.

Troy lives with his second wife, Rose (Judyann Elder), and their desperate-to-be-loved son, Cory (Yaegel Welch). His brother, Gabriel (Lawrence Hamilton), who was wounded and left mentally impaired during World War II, has moved out of their home but makes regular visits and, along with Troy’s best friend, Bono (Lawrence Evans), injects a dose of tenderness and truth at moments when no one else seems able to. Troy spends the first act raging about the discrimination of his job, telling jokes and dark stories of facing down death and the devil himself. The conflict is within Troy, and the other characters can at times seem only to serve the purpose of illustrating that conflict, particularly Troy’s son from his first marriage, Lyons (Wendell B. Franklin), a musician who like Cory is constantly humiliated and criticized by his father. And throughout, they build that fence.

The second act belongs to Rose. Troy must tell her what his inner demons have finally wrought, and the look of pure devastation on her face and the response she gives him are so true and so perfect that they reveal everything about Rose and Troy and marriage and betrayal in a matter of moments. The audience actually cheered for her, a testament to Judyann Elder’s finely honed and careful talent as well as her restraint and timing as an actress.

There are complications beyond those that might destroy this marriage, though. Cory talks of a recruiter coming to watch him play football at school. Troy has warned him of the dangers of becoming involved with sports, despite the fact that this opportunity will allow Cory a college education, and he forbids Cory to play. Their dispute comes to a heartbreaking end, although Cory eventually rises above it.

There’s not a weak spot in the cast. Especially worth noting are Evans, who, as Bono, is a voice of reason that Troy simply refuses to hear, as well as our local celebrity, Hamilton. To write a mentally impaired character is a difficult feat. I suspect that playing one, giving him dignity, avoiding camp, letting meaning shine through his all-too-obvious and painful shortcomings, may be even more difficult. Hamilton’s Gabriel, with a broken-down trumpet strung around his neck so that he can let St. Peter know when it is time to open the gates, is outstanding. The Rep should cast him as often as possible.

The only soft spot was Welch as Cory. However, Welch does get the chance to prove himself as an actor, and he comes through. But for much of the play he is too much the moping teenager and not enough angry son, a problem with direction rather than talent or casting. Welch and Franklin, who play the Maxson sons, are both young actors who are clearly going places.

Director Gilbert McCauley notes that this production is highly influenced by the artist Romane Bearden, a source Wilson himself cited. The set design — which places the Maxsons’ home and yard, as well as the fence they are building around it, in the forefront, against representations of the gritty machinery and alienation of urban Pittsburgh — and the deep and dark colors, relieved only by the clothing of the characters, set a tone that is hard to shake.

Modern-media consumers are not used to sitting through long presentations. Go to “Fences” ready to settle in, as the running time is at least two hours and 30 minutes. Think Arthur Miller, whose plays usually clock in similarly. I am certainly not warning about the length of the dialogue-heavy and fairly fast-paced play. Rather, I believe it’s worth your time.

Joy Ritchey

Uplifting performance

Soweto Gospel Choir
Reynolds Performance Hall
Feb. 1

CONWAY — The Soweto Gospel Choir electrified the UCA Reynolds Performance Center audience with its African traditional style of gospel music. The group lifted up praises to God with singing in Zulu and other South African languages, dancing, drum-beating, and playing such varied musical instruments as the piano, guitar, bass and drums.

Male and female choir members sang a cappella in separate groups. They sang in groups of two and three members. The entire choir’s colorful traditional South African clothing — men wearing dashikis; women wearing zebra-style wrapped skirts — also was a highlight.

Gospel songs from the first part of the show focused on peace and happiness that existed after apartheid. Songs from the second part expressed learning and honoring the past and present and building the future of South Africa and the African nation and unifying the world.

These songs brought out the essence of Africa from a historical, cultural and a empowerment standpoint.

“Hlohonolofatsa,” a traditional Zulu song that featured dancing by three choir members that resembled “stomps” that African-American fraternities perform at college step shows, opened the show.

The audience was also exhilarated by such numbers as “Avulekile Amasango/One Love,” a Bob Marley song with little bit of reggae favor; “Ahuna Ya Tswanang Le Jesu/Kammatla,” which presented South Africa’s brand of the hip-hop culture music — including break dancing and rapping — mixed with traditional dancing and singing. “Mbube” blended choir solos with the playing of a piccolo flute.

Popular songs such as “Amazing Grace” and “Oh Happy Day” gave the Soweto group the chance to perform the typical African-American gospel songs, especially on alternating solos between the men and women. The choir also sang two songs from its new CD, “African Spirit”: “Siteng Sediba” and “World In Union,” the latter focusing on the choir’s dream to see an unified and peaceful world.

A dance segment during the show was spectacular. The drummers were extraordinary — standing up beating the drums with such emotion, grace and beauty — and dancers brought out the essence of South African dance.

— Renarda Williams


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