UNCSA School of Drama opens season with August Wilson’s Fences

by Mark Burger

The School of Drama at UNC School of the Arts will open its 2009-10 performance season with August Wilson’s acclaimed Fences, which will open on Oct. 29 at the Catawba Theatre, located in Performance Place on the UNCSA main campus (1533 S. Main St., Winston-Salem).

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and four Tony Awards, Fences bears all the trademarks of Wilson’s work: vivid and complex characters, intense drama leavened with sometimes unexpected humor and an unmistakable curiosity about the human condition.

First produced in 1983, Fences took its Broadway bow four years later and was an immediate hit with critics and audiences alike. The play won the Drama Desk Award and New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards for Best Play, as well as Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Director (Lloyd Richards), Best Actor (James Earl Jones) and Best Featured Actress (Mary Alice). Jones and Alice also received Drama Desk Awards in the same categories. The show also gave a big boost to the careers of Courtney B. Vance and Frankie Faison, who both received Tony nominations as Best Featured Actor.

In the UNCSA production, Jacobi Howard steps into Jones’ role, that of Troy, a proud and hardworking patriarch in 1950s Pittsburgh who still bears the psychological scars of an abusive childhood. He attempts to instill in his son Cory the same respect for hard work, but Cory is a talented athlete with dreams of his own.

When Cory is recruited by a college football team, Troy, who was once a star baseball player in the Negro Leagues but was bitterly disappointed when he was unable to cross the color barrier into professional sports, attempts to spare Cory from the same heartbreak by telling the coach that Cory can no longer play on the team.

This only serves to strain the relationship between father and son, and Troy is forced to confront his own flaws as a father and as a human being. He must constantly look out for his brother Gabriel, driven insane by his experiences in World War II, and he’s also been less than a perfect husband, having fathered a child by another woman who is not his wife Rose, Cory’s mother.

Fences is the sixth of Wilson’s 10-part “Pittsburgh Cycle” (following Seven Guitars and preceding Two Trains Running), inspired by his upbringing and early life in that fair — and sometimes unfair — city. Wilson, who died in 2005 at age 60, would later win a second Pultizer Prize for The Piano Lesson.

In addition to Howard, this production stars Studio III (third-year) and Studio IV (fourth-year) undergraduate students from the School of Drama, and is directed by Michele Shay, who earned an Obie Award during the 1980-’81 season for her performance in the stage production Mustapha Matura’s Meetings, then earned a Tony Award nomination as

Best Featured Actress for the 1996 production of Wilson’s Seven Guitars. In addition to directing over a dozen stage plays, Shay has also appeared in such films as Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986), Spike Lee’s Crooklyn (1994) and He Got Game (1998), and opposite Meryl Streep and William Hurt in One True Thing (also ‘98). On the small screen, she’s appeared in “Another World,” “Miami Vice,” “The Cosby Show” and “ER.”

Shay’s devotion to the works of August Wilson is evident not only in her previous work and this upcoming production, as she’s in the midst of producing the documentary A Moment in Time:

August Wilson’s 20 th Century at the Kennedy Center and is collaborating with actress/ producer Phylicia Rashad and UNCSA alumnus Stephen Henderson on the book Acting August Wilson.

Showtimes for Fences are 7:30 p.m. Oct. 29, 8 p.m. Oct. 30-31 and Nov. 4-7, and 2 p.m. Nov. 1 and 7. Tickets are $12, $10 for senior citizens and students. For tickets or more information, call 336.721.1945 or go to

The opening-night performance is a benefit for the Larry Leon and Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin/Winston-Salem Urban League Endowed Scholarship Fund at UNCSA, named for the late founder of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company and the National Black Theatre Festival, and his wife. Tickets for this performance are $50, which includes a post-performance champagne and dessert party with the director and cast. For more information about this special event, call the Office of Advancement: 336.770.3330.