Danielle Lee Greaves thought that by pursuing the role of Rose Maxson in this spring’s production of Fences in Woodstock, she would be continuing her evolution away from her career in musical theater.
Then the 50-year-old Broadway veteran started reading the script of August Wilson’s drama, and learning about its place in the playwright’s American Century Cycle of plays exploring the lives and struggles of working-class African-Americans in Pittsburgh.
Next , Greaves watched video of the original Broadway adaptation, starring James Earl Jones as Rose’s imposing, troubled husband Troy Maxson.
Finally, she read the script while watching the 2016 film version, in which Viola Davis portrayed Rose to Denzel Washington’s Troy, a performance that earned Davis an Academy Award for best supporting actress.
“Each of (Wilson’s) works has its own music,” Greaves said last week, during an interview between rehearsals. “Like Shakespeare’s has its own music. When I saw the movie, I didn’t watch it so much as listen, to hear the music.”
While listening to the music in the dialogue of Fences during a production he saw in Arizona two years ago, Jarvis Antonio Green began to consider staging the 1950s-era play — and, over the ensuing nine years, each of the other nine plays in Wilson’s cycle — in Woodstock, to which he’d moved in 2011.
“It is like music,” the 36-year-old Green, artistic director of JAG Productions, said of Wilson’s work on Monday. “He was fascinated with the blues. He writes his plays based off the blues. That is the central theme throughout most of his work. … It’s almost like a rap or something. Actors speak the text, and it has a fluidity. … The main characters break down into the melody, and the other characters come in with their own chord and note to add to it.”
Green knew he’d found his Rose during Greaves’ audition in New York this past winter, a reading — or should we say recital? — of the monologue in which the character unleashes the emotions built up over 18 years of deferring to Troy’s demands and demons.
“She nailed it,” Green recalled. “She took the note. It’s a hard thing with August Wilson: It’s Shakespearean in scope, but it also has to sound natural. These are real people. (Greaves) has this natural ability to understand the rhythms of the text.
“She picked up on it right away.”
Veteran character actor Brian Anthony Wilson, on the other hand, spent a couple of decades picking it up, while playing supporting roles of the other male characters, except for Troy’s teenage son Cory, in the cast of Fences during various regional productions.
“Troy has been a dream role for me,” Wilson, now 57, said last week. “I’ve been Gabriel (Troy’s war-damaged brother), Lyons (Troy’s son from a previous relationship and Bono (Troy’s friend and co-worker on a garbage truck). I tried for Troy in a production a few years ago. I was 53 by then, and I thought, ‘I can do this, now.’ It ended up going to (Broadway star) Michael Genet because they wanted a bigger name, which was cool. I decided, ‘That’s God’s way.’ God said, ‘You’ll get your turn. Watch and learn.’ So when this opportunity came along, it was like a godsend.”
Green talks the same way about the appearance of Wilson, whose resume includes six years as Detective Vernon Holley on the acclaimed HBO series The Wire, at the auditions for Troy.
“Brian could do a master class on both the music and the dialogue of August Wilson,” Green said. “I’m hearing Brian just kind of devour, eat these words that are on the page. He just gets it. He gets what’s specific to what Troy went through as an African-American man, and what’s universal about him as a larger-than-life father. You see him in the scenes with Cory and you go, ‘Oh, yup: That’s my dad.’ ”
In the role and the lines, Wilson sees plenty of his own father, like Troy a promising baseball player who came of age in a more segregated time and who settled for a more prosaic life in his native Philadelphia. His father died last July.
“I think that’s a big part of why Fences is probably the most accessible play in the cycle,” Wilson said. “For so many people, what comes out is, ‘This was my father.’ The words are so vibrant. (August Wilson) listens to people. He writes about people you can relate to. … When I was auditioning for the other roles in my late 20s, I’d do Troy’s monologues. That’s when I started to appreciate the breadth and the depth of those words.”
This week, Wilson and Greaves and the supporting cast, including Dartmouth freshman Gabriel Jenkinson as Troy and Rose’s son Cory, have been fleshing out the words with repetition after repetition of stage action in rehearsals. On Tuesday at Woodstock’s Little Theater, Wilson and Jenkinson spent more than an hour working out the body language and positioning as well as the intangibles of Troy and Cory’s confrontation late in the play, which ends with Cory leaving the house and joining the Marines.
During one sequence, Green encouraged Jenkinson to face the audience while trying to move past the drunken, blues-singing Troy.
“I just gotta remember not to roll my eyes,” Jenkinson said, to which Wilson, still in character, cracked, “You can roll ‘em. You just gonna be walking with a cane for the rest of your life.”
It’s all music to the ears of Green, who’s trying not to look too far past the current production to the challenges of staging the other nine installments in the cycle.
“It’s going to take … I’m hoping that Fences will be a show that gives a good sense of the work that we’re trying to do here,” Green said. “Having the right actors has made it easy.
“People want to nail it. People want to hit it out of the park.”
JAG Productions and Pentangle Arts stage Fences at the Woodstock Town Hall Theatre, starting with 7:30 previews next Thursday night and the night of April 28. After the official opening on April 29 at 7:30 and two performances on the 30th, the play will be staged May 4 through 7, including two shows on the 6th. Admission costs $20 for the previews, after which tickets are $25 for members of Pentangle, $30 for others ages 18 to 64, $17 for ages 17 and younger and $28 for ages 65 and older. To reserve tickets and learn more, visit jagproductionsvt.com/fences or call 802-457-3981.
This Saturday night at 7, Jarvis Antonio Green will screen The Ground on Which I Stand, the 2015 documentary about Wilson’s life and work, at the Billings Farm and Museum. Admission is free for museum members and $10 for others.
David Corriveau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at 603-727-3304.