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The great boxer Joe Louis and baseball immortal Josh Gibson were contemporaries who thrived in the 1930s. The Old Globe Theatre’s In This Corner tells of Louis’s exploited life in the spotlight, during the Age of Jim Crow. August Wilson’s Fences, among many other things, shows what life was like for an African-American athlete denied the chance to star.

Gibson died of a stroke three months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Gibson never got to perform on the grand stage (and if he did, Barry Bonds’d still be chasing his home run record). Fences opens in 1957. Troy Maxson, a Gibson-like character, shows that although baseball’s been desegregated, the world outside hasn’t.

The play abounds with fences, walls, and barriers: the fences at Pittsburgh’s Homestead Baseball Park that Troy could clear with ease; the barriers of segregation; the penitentiary walls Troy spent 15 years behind for killing a man in self-defense; the protective fence Troy’s building in his yard to keep the world — and death — at bay. His first name suggests another. Ancient Troy had impregnable walls, until a ruse brought them down.

Troy creates and breaks invisible barriers. His two sons, Lyons (by a previous marriage) and Corey, want to “play”: Lyons, to be a musician; Corey, to win a college football scholarship. Disillusioned Troy, who was denied play, refuses to let them chase dreams. At the same time, he breaks a barrier at work: he becomes the first black trash collector allowed to drive a truck.

Troy Maxson is one of August Wilson’s, and American theater’s, most multifaceted creations. He’s a “yes…but…” character. Mention a negative (like his philandering with Alberta late in his life), and a positive jumps up and counterbalances it (that he took responsibility for his family for years and years). Yes he verges on cruelty to his sons, but he means well and doesn’t want them to face what he did. With Troy, and Wilson says it three times to stress the point, “You got to take the crookeds with the straights.”

Which is just what Antonio T.J. Johnson gives us in Cygnet Theatre’s splendid production. He’s a lion in a cage, roaring through the bars and, except for a brief glimpse of freedom on his way north, he’s been caged all along. This is Johnson’s best work ever and, one of the best features, he has rage, and gentleness, in reserve.

A large man, Johnson can dominate the stage — telling stories, pushing out — then become so vulnerable that Troy appears to shrink, pulling us into his tormented psyche. Baseball, which he learned to play in prison, saved Troy. It’s his metaphorical template for life, its rules his Ten Commandments. When the world becomes too complex, Johnson adds a brilliant insight: Troy reaches for a bat and swings it smoothly: the ex-jock’s equivalent of a calming mantra.

Productions of Fences showcase Troy. James Earl Jones in the original and Lawrence Fishburne in L.A. played him as a star vehicle: Othello catching for the Homestead Grays/Pittsburg Crawfords. Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, honored last year by the San Diego Critics’ Circle for her visionary approach to theater, has taken a much more rewarding tack: in the Cygnet production, Troy is a big, revolving planet, a Jupiter; his loving, long-suffering wife Rose is the sun.

She is his center and, when she runs interference for him, his circumference. “I’ve been standing in the same place for 18 years,” Rose reminds Troy at one point, “I’ve been standing with you.” And when he crosses a line, she nails him with “You always talking about what you give…But you take too. You take…and don’t even know nobody’s giving.” Rose binds Troy’s “yes” and “but” qualities. In the end, when his “sins” begin to dominate, she resurrects the positives.

Back in the mid-Eighties, Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson gave one of my all-time favorite San Diego performances as Lena, in the Floyd Gaffney-directed Boseman and Lena at the Educational Cultural Complex. In the mud of nowhere, Lena makes a simple, for her heroic, self-assertion. Thompson’s Rose ranks with Lena. Fences has nine scenes — or innings. By the bottom of the ninth, Thompson has evolved from batting in the pitcher’s spot to cleanup. She laces Rose with humor and a free physicality (enhanced by Veronica Murphy’s excellent costumes). In the end, Thompson becomes molten, as 18 years of support/enabling explode. Where Troy crossed the line, Rose erects an emotional fence.

The leads deliver all the goods, but so does everyone else on Mike Buckley’s brick-walled, sturdy front porch set, dapple-lit by Eric Lotze. As Troy’s sons, Laurence Michael Brown and Patrick Kelly keep suspended the question whether Lyons and Corey will inherit, as Rose worries, “the sins of the father.” Grandison Phelps III, as Troy’s buddy Bono, and young Madeline Hornbuckle, as Raynell, make valuable contributions.

August Wilson always weaves the sacred and profane, myth and reality, through his plays. In Fences, Troy’s brother Gabriel is a mentally challenged WWII vet, with a metal plate in his skull, and/or his angelic namesake. When Gabe says he’s fighting “hellhounds,” for example, who’s to say he isn’t? Mark Christopher Lawrence does a special turn as the hornblower who, though he strikes out three times with his trumpet, ends up smashing the deepest home run of all.

Fences by August Wilson
Cygnet Theatre,
6663 El Cajon Boulevard, College Area
Directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg; cast: Antonio T.J. Johnson, Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson, Mark Christopher Lawrence, Madeline Hornbuckle, Patrick Kelly, Grandison Phelps III, Laurence Brown; scenic design, Mike Buckley; costumes, Veronica Murphy; lighting, Eric Lotze; sound, George Ye
Playing through February 24; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-337-1525.

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