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Pioneer Theatre Company to stage August Wilson's 'Fences'

SALT LAKE CITY — Actor Michael Anthony Williams thought he knew what it would take to play the role of Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s “Fences” — that is, until he was cast in Pioneer Theatre’s upcoming production of the play.

When Williams performed in “Fences” for the first time about 15 years ago, he took on the part of Troy’s best friend, Bono, and imagined what he would do if he were cast as the lead role.

“I can tell you now, I had no idea how difficult the huge mountain one had to climb to get this role (Troy) done right, so I’m humbled,” Williams said in an interview with the Deseret News.

Aside from the fact that the character is speaking during a large portion of the show, Williams said the biggest challenges of the role of Troy are tackling Wilson’s specific language and capturing the essence of the character.

“(Troy) is just very, very complex, so to try to make sure you are portraying every facet of the man, you’ve got to ride an emotional journey that’s treacherous,” he said. “It’s extremely demanding.”

“Fences,” which will be performed Jan. 6-21 at PTC, is part of playwright Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, which, according to a recent NPR article, is a 10-play series that explores “the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century.” “Fences” takes place in the 1950s and tells of an African-American man, Troy, who works as a garbage man in Pittsburgh. The story, which earned Wilson a Pulitzer Prize in 1987, recently made its way to the big screen with a film version starring Denzel Washington as Troy, which was released in theaters in December.

According to pioneertheatre.org, “Fences” unfolds as Troy bitterly reflects on how segregation practices of the time kept him from living his dream of playing major league baseball. To rub additional salt into the wound, Troy’s son receives an offer to play college football on scholarship, which reminds Troy of his lost opportunity and creates conflict between father and son.

At the helm of PTC’s production is director Timothy Douglas, who understudied the role of Troy’s brother Gabriel during the play’s world premiere production at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985. This is Douglas’ fourth time directing “Fences,” and although he said he isn’t necessarily seeking to do anything unique with this production, he has found himself “relaxing the need to make the world of the play feel authentically 1950s” and is instead allowing the script to do the work.

“I’m just letting the words live on their own and ring true on their own,” Douglas said. “It needs no help from me.”

Williams, who has worked with Douglas on past shows, said the PTC production is elevated both by Douglas’ direction and by a strong cast.

“I’m playing the lead character in this show, but this is not a one-man show or a one-person show,” he said. “I have to say that whatever the audience sees in what I’m doing has a lot to do with what I have been given and am being given by my mates.”

Both Williams and Douglas said that while the story is deeply rooted in the African-American experience and culture, the play contains themes with which audiences of every race and background can relate, including messages about family, relationships and how one’s decisions can impact others.

“Some may think because this play is specifically about black Americans that it may not be relevant to them, but August and all the great writers, no matter what they’re writing about, they’re always writing very specifically, but the great writers always make the audiences feel the play is about them,” Douglas said, “and August succeeds in doing that with this play.”

Content advisory: "Fences" contains some instances of profane or vulgar language, including several instances of the N-word, that would be the equivalent to what may be contained in a PG-13 movie. According to pioneertheatre.org, the play is best suited for audiences ages 10 and older.

If you go …

What: Pioneer Theatre Company’s “Fences”

Where: Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East

When: Jan. 6-21, Monday-Thursday, 7 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday matinees, 2 p.m.

How much: $25-$44 in advance, $30-$49 on the day of the show, students in kindergarten-12th grade are half-price on Mondays and Tuesdays

Phone: 801-581-6961

Web: pioneertheatre.org

Email: wwilde@deseretnews.com

Twitter: whitneybutters