Lou Bellamy

DramaWatch Weekly: home run

Bobby Bermea finds the key to "Fences." Plus: Lady Day at Emerson's, Tim Stapleton's art, bubble-bath theater, openings and closings.

Gabriel, blow your horn!

Portland’s theater makers are a supportive lot, so it was no surprise that several prominent actors were in the audience at Portland Playhouse on the night last week that I went to see the current production of Fences. But I didn’t expect, necessarily, to see Michelle Mariana, Brenda Hubbard and Jeff Gorman – who’d sat together in the front row – clustered on the sidewalk after the show, asking the same question I was asking: “Which door is Bobby going to come out of?”

For my part, I’d come to the show specifically to see what Bobby Bermea and director Lou Bellamy had done with a seemingly small yet, to my mind, crucial role in August Wilson’s most celebrated drama. But I wasn’t the only one to come away powerfully struck by his performance.

(Disclosure: Bermea, in addition to a busy career as an actor and director, is a contributing writer for Oregon ArtsWatch, and he and I served together a few years ago on the Drammy Awards committee.)

Bobby Bermea (left) as Gabriel and Lester Purry as Troy in “Fences.” Photo: Brud Giles

Fences was Wilson’s “I’ll show them” play, the one in which he departed from his usual discursive, multivalent approach and proved he could write a more conventionally structured drama with a singular focus, something more akin to the classic “well-made play.” The story is about the towering, often glowering figure at its center, a former Negro Leagues baseball star named Troy Maxson, and the other characters exist as bodies in his orbit, the narrative’s several lines of tension pulsing between each of them and him, the hub of the wheel. In terms of action, what’s going on is mostly between Troy and his son Cory, who wants to play college football, despite his father’s bitterness about how his own opportunities were limited.  Or between Troy and his wife, Rose, who eventually laments not making the big man leave room for her wants and needs. Or between Troy and his longtime friend Jim Bono, who slips from admiration to concern to sad resignation as his hero self-destructs. Or …

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‘Fences,’ then and now

August Wilson's classic American play, in a vital production at Portland Playhouse, is set in the 1950s and seems necessary for today

America always struggles to reckon with its racist history. There’s a resistance to bringing up the past. As if history has no bearing on where we are today. As if those who suffered under slavery, or the Trail of Tears, or the Chinese Exclusion Act, were some other people in some other place. But looking back is the only way to find understanding and empathy. That’s what Portland Playhouse has done with its production of August Wilson’s Tony Award-winning 1985 play Fences.

Fences is part of Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” ten plays exploring the African-American experience through each decade of the 20th century. Set in the 1950s, it follows the life of Troy Maxson (Lester Purry), a middle-aged sanitation worker who once dreamed of playing major league baseball. Denied his dream because of the color line, he has consigned himself to a simple life with his wife and son.

From left: Bryant Bentley, Lester Purry, Erika LaVonn, Bobby Bermea. Photo: Brud Giles

Wilson’s script takes its time, allowing the audience time to fall under the spell of his protagonist. As the patriarch of the Maxson household Troy looms large in the family, always the center of attention. He’s a natural storyteller, drawing in his friends and family with embellished tales about his own life, and eager to give out advice on everything. But just below his charming exterior is a storm of anger and resentment, a terrifying force the family must navigate.

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DramaWatch: Fences & Frogs

The week on stage features an August Wilson classic, a revival of a children's hit, Salt, Swans, Clowns, labor struggles, Todd Van Voris solo

Portland Playhouse has emerged over the past decade as one of the city’s top theaters for a variety of reasons: energetic young leadership, an invitingly casual atmosphere, and early sponsorship that resulted in free beer.

But you might think of it as The House That August Wilson Built. After all, it was a 2010 production of Wilson’s Radio Golf that first amplified the buzz about the young company beyond theater cognoscenti. Since then the Playhouse has had repeated success with Wilson’s majestic depictions of hardscrabble lives in the predominantly African American Hill District of Pittsburgh.

Lester Purry stars as former baseball hero Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s “Fences.” Portland Playhouse photo

The production of Fences opening this weekend is the seventh of Wilson’s epic century cycle of plays to be staged by Portland Playhouse. The story of an ex-baseball star toiling as a garbage man, it deals with the challenges of identity and self-respect for black people in the 1950s. It’s Wilson’s greatest hit, a Pulitzer and Tony winner (and a Denzel vehicle), so Wilson fans won’t want to miss it, and neither should those who don’t yet know the joy. Much more conventionally structured than his other, more discursively poetic works, this is an ideal introduction to Wilson’s enduring themes and settings.

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