Photograph by Maarten Van Dijk
A responsible man: Mujahid Abdul Rashid plays Troy in Tabia Theatre's production of 'Fences.'
Tabia Theatre evokes strong audience response for August Wilson's 'Fences'
By Marianne Messina
ZEALOUS SYMPHONIC conductors will often keep their hands raised after the last note fades, holding the audience attentive as the overtones attenuate to infinity. Even if you don't hear anything in that grace period, the implicit demand for respect makes you listen hard. Tabia African-American Theatre Ensemble's presentation of August Wilson's Fences earned at least that much respect, and the production reminded me how often I've wished that theaters kept the house dark to demand those 20 or 30 seconds of attention. Meanwhile, back in the real world of a Sunday-afternoon performance at Mexican Heritage Plaza, the house lights came up before the curtain call ended, and the actors were asked to find seats for an instant talk-back. Oh, the forbearance of the modern actor.
Wilson's play digs and scratches in timeless interpersonal earth with protagonist Troy Maxson (Mujahid Abdul Rashid), who left home at the age of 14 after a fight with his father. "World suddenly became big," he recounts to his son. "It was a long time till I could cut it down to where I could handle it." The roil of conflict—between father and son, husband and wife, responsibility and freedom, black and white, the world and home—all bubbles out of that simple cauldron.
At the talk-back, a De Anza College student remarked that where the written text had seemed abstruse, the production was illuminating. Another student mentioned that the script led him to hate Troy, but that Rashid made Troy not only understandable but sympathetic. I second all that. Rashid's Troy delivers a lot of harsh-seeming lines with a wry sense of humor, a humor that resides in the cadences of Wilson's language.
The entire cast got the point in a lyrical performance that mined the humor, the craftiness, the defeatism and the poetry of the characters. And the production did respectfully pause between scenes, dim lighting outlining the simple house, porch and yard, to let the blues and pop songs from the '50s establish the rhythms of another time and culture. As Troy sees it, his loving wife, Rose (Sharon Moore), his jazz musician son Lyons (Howard Johnson II) by an earlier wife, his son with Rose, Cory (Jason Sanford), and his brain-damaged veteran brother, Gabe (Jeff Jones), are "responsibilities." And Rashid establishes his character so well that when Cory accuses Troy of not liking him and Troy thunders, "Do I like you?" it's both sadly humorous and painfully poignant.
As his wife, Moore's strength and warmth keep the steady, laundering, lunch-making Rose from appearing wooden in the first half of the play, which gives her few lines. With relish and anticipation, we know that when the dirty laundry comes out, this woman is going to have a lot to say. And at this performance, the vocal audience egged her on "Hoo-ing" and "Tsk-ing" as she laid it down. Drawing stylistically from early black literary movements, Fences employs devices like oral tradition—Troy passing the family history through story and song—and it gives us a Trickster in Uncle Gabe (who has "a metal plate in his head" from the war). Seamlessly, Jones makes uncle Gabe exactly what the practical world finds hard to deal with, a combination of simple-minded and unpredictable. His compulsive gestures merge into ritual. A review of Troy's life reveals that, like any of us, he has both succeeded and failed, but when the play brings in Troy's 8-year-old daughter Raynell (Myhala Herrold-Morgan), it throws the focus on how each generation moves a little further beyond the last. Herrold-Morgan, a veteran of 10 Children's Musical Theater San Jose productions, is a most ebullient and crowd-pleasing Raynell—and she needs to be in order to charm her Uncle Cory out of the past. The two actors are a pleasing fit. As Raynell joins Cory in singing the family song, Herrold-Morgan finishes her musical phrases with tasty R&B ornaments, and this Sunday audience gave out loud sounds of approval.
Fences, a Tabia African-American Theatre Ensemble and San Jose Multicultural Artist Guild production, plays Friday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Mexican Heritage Theater, 1700 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $20-$30. (408.272.9924)
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