August Wilson’s Fences Opens at American Players Theatre
Complicated Family Relations
|Fences director Ron OJ Parson (l-r) and Yao Dogbe who plays
Cory, the son of the main protagonist Troy, in front of the outdoor
Fences set. at American Players Theatre
was in those kinds of things. At 15-16-years-old, we had to act and direct at the same time, so I used to do that a lot. In college, I did that. David Alan Grier and
Reggie Cathey — who was on House of Cards — and I had a company in Ann Arbor called The Back Alley Players. I went to Michigan. David and Reggie left and
went to Yale. And then I went to Rutgers. I left Rutgers and went to New York.”
Parson quickly found out that New York was not the city for him and he took a drama director position at a community theater in Flint, Michigan. Parson soon
succumbed to the lure of Chicago’s theater scene and auditioned for a part at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. He landed a part.
“I was shocked,” Parson said. “Who comes to the major theater in a major city and gets cast? I got cast and told my girlfriend at the time, ‘I’m going to move to
Chicago. Do you want to come?’ She didn’t come, but I did. I started at the Goodman and within five years, my friend, Alfred Wilson and I started a theater company. I
started doing more directing around town. Michael Labe from Steppenwolf kind of mentored me a little. From there, things just picked up. I was a freelance director
pretty much all of my life. And I’ve been with Court Theater for 12 years.”
For the past 25 years, Parson has been based in Chicago and has directed August Wilson plays about 30 times. While there have been awesome African American
playwrights — Lorraine Hansberry and ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ come readily to mind — Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” of 10 plays depicting African American life in the
20th century, one decade per play, has made him arguably the premier African American playwright.
Wilson’s plays are incredible for the richness and depth of their characters who depict life and issues in the African American community on many different levels
and take on issues like father-son relationships that are universal, but within the context of African American culture.
Parson never tires directing August Wilson plays.
“Right after this opens, on August 13th, I start King Hedley II at the Court Theater,” Parson said. “That’s the only one that I haven’t directed. So it will take place that I
will have directed all of August Wilson’s plays. I’ve done some of the others 3-4 times. When I was asked the question how many I had done, I had to think about it
and look at all of the theaters and it was like 23. Then I calculated the total after every one after that. Some people say, ‘Why do you keep directing them?’ I say,
‘Well, if I direct Tennessee Williams, you don’t say not another Street Car named Desire or Long Day Journey into Night.’ No, you do them because they are great
plays. August’s plays, to me, are great plays. I just love doing them. When people ask me to do them, I just appreciate it.”
And although this will be fourth time that he has directed ‘Fences,’ it will still be a unique interpretation of the play as if Parson is doing it for the first time.
“I think I get more insight as I do them again,.” Parson said. “I’m older. The first time I directed it was in 2005. You do learn from that about life and some of the
characters. I work in a collaborative way with actors. Whomever the actors are, I collaborate with them. Some people see Troy a little bit differently than others. I try
to use that. I don’t have one layout of how it should be. There are some directors who do that. ‘Do it this way. Stand like this.’ I don’t want to do that because I’m an
actor too and I don’t want to be directed that way. Do to others what you would have them do to you.”
While the main character in the play is Troy, a garbage man in Pittsburgh who has had his own dreams soar and then get dashed to the ground, there is a huge off-
stage presence in the play: American racism. While it never appears onstage, it influences the choices — and the lives — of the characters onstage.
“In particular with August and this play, there is an inherent racism that is existing in 1957,” Parson said. “The thought that Troy could play in the Negro League, but
couldn’t play in the Major Leagues and Jackie Robinson and that whole thing is present. A friend of mine just wrote a play in New York. Toni Stone is about the first
African American woman who played in the Negro League. Everyone knows that movie ‘A League of their Own.’ In the movie, they briefly talked about a Black
athlete who can’t play. That was Toni Stone. Toni Stone tried to play in that league. When they wouldn’t allow her to play because she was Black, the guys in the
Negro League — Hank Aaron, Satchel Page and those guys — told her to come play with them. She could play with them. And maybe that’s why they didn’t want her
to play in the other League because she was just dominating. It’s like Jackie. When Jackie went into the majors, he wasn’t even the best player in the Negro
League. There were a lot of other things that led to him being the first. Racism is an inherent thing that affects us as a people that we don’t necessarily talk about
every day, but it is there.”
While Jackie Robinson was breaking barriers in the Major Leagues, something that Troy was not able to do in his own life, he nonetheless makes a contribution to
African American advancement in the same vein.
“The fact that he is trying to get a promotion at the job; it’s hard for a Black man to advance,” Parson said. “There are all of those pressures. He is the first Black
garbage man to become a driver, which is ironic too because we’re talking the Negro League and Jackie Robinson being the first and here, it’s not in baseball, it’s
in something else and he is the first. That achievement to him is a big deal.”
And so, within the context of American racism, Troy makes decisions in his life — some born out of stress, some out of stubbornness, some out of pride — that
impact the people in his life, including his wife Rose. Love isn’t always easy.
“There is Rose, his wife,” Parson said. “She is a character who depicts the strong wife, the rock of the family. She has to deal with and navigate all of these
relationships. You have Gabriel, Troy’s brother who was damaged in the war. You have Troy’s son from a previous relationship who is a little bit older. He may not
have the same relationship as the young son whom he is raising now. That’s the crux of the relationship of Rose and the actress who is playing her, to be able to
navigate that and find the love that is in the family. I always try to look at plays from the love point of view. Where is the love? And so we have to work to navigate
how she can love him and why she is loving him. Again, she is that rock. She is keeping the family together through all of those odds. If you look at a lot of cultures,
particularly African American culture, keeping the family together is important. And when there is a betrayal that happens, it’s hard to do that.
I’ve always said that it’s a legacy of slavery. It goes back to slavery. They got rid of family. That was how they controlled the slaves. Get rid of the family. The mother
and the father have some young people, they make the kids work and then they dissipate them. That’s brutal. In Rose’s case, she’s not going to be that way. She
wants to hold the family together no matter what. It may not be the same, but at least she is going to be that rock.”
And Troy is the all-too-human tragic figure.
“Sometimes you look at what makes the person the way they are, the way Troy is, the way he is hard with his son,” Parson said. “I call it ‘tough love.’ A lot of
people can relate to that. There is a reason why he is bitter like that because of what’s happened to him. It’s an overview. It’s not something that is in the text
necessarily, but in rehearsal, you are going to try and find all of that stuff. The relationship between Troy and his son Cory is very complex. That’s why I think a lot of
fathers and sons, even if they aren’t African American, can relate to this relationship because they have issues. Troy is putting the weight of his life on the son in
terms of what he went through. But there is more to it than that. That’s what is stated, but there are other things that are affecting it. That’s what we try to explore in
the play. In Troy’s mind, some of it is the right choice and other times, he makes a mistake. He makes mistakes. He’s human. Those are issues that are in the play
too. He’s got a lot of things going on with him that he is trying to cover. That’s weakness sometimes.”
The complexity of the relationship between father and son is at the heart of ‘Fences,’ thrusting the plot forward to a tragic and all too real conclusion. And part of the
energy that drives the play along are the intergenerational misunderstandings that happen between Troy and Cory.
“Cory’s pressure comes from his father not wanting him to fall into the same mistakes that he did, wanting to go full-fledged into sports,” said Yao Dogbe who plays
Cory. “But Cory is not one who is trying to do sports full-time. He’s trying to go to college.
Next issue: Father and son relationship explored
Part 1 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
While he didn’t always know it, American Theater has always had Ron OJ Parson’s number. It
all started in the third grade when he dressed up like the planet Mars and said, “I am Mars, the
red planet, red like blood.”
And as a teenager, Parson was recruited for the Studio Arena Theater School in his hometown,
Buffalo, NY where he got his first taste of directing as a teenager. But like many an African
American child, Parson ended up being more practical and enrolled at the University of
Michigan to study journalism. But the theater kept calling his name.
“I heard some people rehearsing a play,” said Parson, who is directing the American Players
Theatre production of August Wilson’s ‘Fences.’ “I walked in the room and I said, ‘I know this
play.’ ‘Well we need someone to play this part here.’ And I played it and changed majors and
got back into theater, which I had done all of my life. In high school, I was in the drama club. I