Father-son theme of 'Fences' never outdated

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

Although August Wilson's 1983 play "Fences" has been widely acclaimed for its observations on the African-American experience, Lynch Travis says its themes are far more universal than that.

"I've seen the play. I've been in the play," says Travis, who directs the Bonstelle Theatre's production of "Fences" through Feb. 22. "And when I talk to audience members — black, white, Jewish, whatever — many, many, many people are going, 'Wow. I remember that kind of situation with my dad. I remember this about my father.'"

The play chronicles eight years of conflict and change in an African-American family living in Pittsburgh. The show's signature character is family patriarch Troy Maxson, a strong-willed raconteur who works as a garbage collector. Sparks fly between Troy (Will Bryson) and his son Cory (Donnevan Tolbert) when Cory expresses his desire to play professional football, reminding Troy of his own struggle to make a living as a young baseball player in the Negro Leagues.

"The main conflict in the play is the relationship between fathers and sons, between parents and children, how we direct our children, what we want them to do and how we want to nurture them," Travis says. "Those themes never become outdated."

Travis had previously seen two productions of the play, and starred as Troy in the Performance Network's 2008 production. However, he says he "still found things to learn about the play."

"It's not been so much of a challenge, but it's an opportunity to look at this play through another lens," he says.

Actor Danté Jones, who plays Troy's best friend Jim Bono, says the character of Troy immediately drew him into "Fences" because he could see Troy "archetypes" in his own past.

"I had grown up around a few Troy Maxsons myself, so I could relate to how truthful the language felt," he says. "And the drama of it all in itself was just heart-wrenching."

However, the 23-year-old Jones and some of his fellow actors in the undergraduate theater had to undertake some research to authentically portray their much older characters. Jones found a key reference for his 57-year-old character by recording and studying older men's conversations in barbershops.

"I studied men in buses, because I take the bus to school," he says. "I tried to remember older uncles and my grandparents in my youth. I did some research about how someone that age who walks about 30 miles a day to collect the trash in Pittsburgh would move."

Jones posits that Detroiters may find a metaphor for their own city in Troy — a character who could be perceived as negative, but is actually "just honest and multifaceted."

"He has a lot of love in him, and he pulls a lot of love out of the other characters around him," Jones says. "So I would say that ("Fences'") relevance — one of the things the audience should take home, at the very least — is learning how to keep the good things, the positives, at the forefront and making sure that gets more attention than the negatives."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.


Through Feb. 22

8 p.m. Friday-Saturday;

2 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday; school matinees 10 a.m. Feb. 18 and Feb. 19

Bonstelle Theatre

3424 Woodward, Detroit

Tickets $10-$20

(313) 577-2960