“Fences,” August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play about the African American experience, is University Theatre’s newest production, opening March 1.
The play, directed by UW–Madison Professor Baron Kelly, tells the story of Troy Maxson, a former star of the Negro Baseball League who toils as a garbage man in 1957 Pittsburgh. Excluded as a Black man from the major leagues during his prime, Troy’s bitterness takes a toll on his relationships with his wife and son, and threatens to tear his family apart.
The play is considered a landmark work of American theater. UW–Madison’s production will feature professional actors — including guest artist C. Julian White, who is in residence at UW–Madison for spring 2023 (and directing Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” later this season) — working alongside student actors.
Micah Anderson, a senior at Madison West High School, plays Cory — Troy’s teenage son — in the play. His drama teacher recommended him to Kelly and helped him land an audition. “It’s been amazing” working with professional actors, Anderson says. “There is so much information, so much knowledge that I’m getting just being here.”
Kelly, a Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor in the Department of Theatre and Drama who also holds a concurrent appointment with the Odyssey Project in the Department of Continuing Studies, says that “Fences” offers an opportunity to learn about the cultural experience of African Americans in the 1950s.
“A lot of things were happening in this country in 1957,” says Kelly, who has recently received an Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Training in acting and is a proud recipient of the John F. Kennedy Center Gold Medallion for Excellence in Theatre Education. “When the play opens this country was going through tremendous changes as far as desegregation, the civil rights movement, and in sports. So these are topics that hopefully students will be studying in school today.”
To provide young people in our community an opportunity to see this history brought to life on stage, the Department of Theatre and Drama has planned several student matinees of “Fences.” Over 650 students from three high schools in Madison and Baraboo are attending these free outreach performances.
The department has also partnered with the School of Education’s office of Professional Learning and Community Education (PLACE) to supply their teachers with educational materials so that these students can fully experience the world of the production — learning about costumes, casting decisions, set design, and the complex text of the play — and ask questions for discussion during post-show talk backs with the actors.
“When I first heard about plans for this production, I was excited and impressed by Baron Kelly’s vision for it — one that brings people of all ages and backgrounds to campus to explore topics and conversations that are critical to our society,” says Diana Hess, the dean of the School of Education. “We’re proud to bring this work of art to campus in a way that’s relevant, fresh, and accessible to the community.”
Kelly says he hopes those coming to the show will have a “visceral” experience. “Yes, you can read. Yes, you can write … but to come to the theater and see (this work) put up in reality in a three-dimensional space is mind blowing,” he says.
“Wilson found the divine in the down-home,” adds Kelly. “He wrote with a particular kind of lyricism and musicality” that, he notes, is similar to Shakespeare and the Greeks, as well as other classic American playwrights such as Tennessee Williams.
Kelly sees this production as a “turnkey” for more plays centered on diverse experiences in the Department of Theatre and Drama. He reflects that when he was a PhD student at UW–Madison over 20 years ago, he organized and taught an acting course for high school students of color that attracted attention from local media.
Kelly would like to see more efforts like this on campus that are specifically focused on broadening representation and increasing opportunities for students of color in the arts.
“There are a lot of people in communities outside of the university that don’t feel that the university has a place for them,” he says. “Wisconsin is not really or hasn’t been a welcoming environment for a lot of people.”
“That’s changing,” he says. “And the Department of Theatre and Drama wants to be part of that change.”
“Fences” runs March 1-10 in the Ronald E. Mitchell Theatre in Vilas Hall (821 University Ave.). Full-price tickets are $26, with discounts available for children, seniors, and UW–Madison faculty, staff, and students. March 1 is “preview night,” and all tickets are $15 for that performance.
Get your tickets now at artsticketing.wisc.edu or by calling 608-265-2787.
This production is made possible by generous support from the Anonymous Block Grant, the Lorraine Hansberry Fund, the Nellie Y. McKay-Lorraine Hansberry Fund, and the Joyce J. and Gerald A. Bartell Award in the Arts.
Content Advisory: This play contains physical violence, mature content, and language including racial epithets.