Theater note: “Fences,” heart-wrenching and exhilarating


My friend Jean invited me to help her review Fences at the Penumbra Theatre. It was my first visit to the Penumbra, and it was outstanding!

The set is both intimate and larger than life. It provided everything that was needed to get the full view—the depth and the breadth—of the living that had occurred before the audience arrived. But we were also provided with a viewpoint from the front porch across the street, where we could see all of the daily interactions of the family “just over there.” I arrived anticipating a story about baseball, and I was concerned that I would lost in the baseball-isms. I also thought I might learn more about the struggles of African-American life in the 1950s. What I found instead was a story about family struggles—a story about how one generation shapes the next.

Fences, a play written by August Wilson and directed by Lou Bellamy. Presented through September 21 at the Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul. For tickets ($38) and information, see

At first I was surprised at my identification with Corey (James T. Alfred), the son aching for his own dream and being overshadowed by his father’s fear and pain. I was certainly shaped by family elders. My grandfather spent his life in the Pennsylvania coal mines and made certain his descendents were college-educated and never had to labor manually. Is there any wonder that my cousins and I hold more higher degrees of education than any typical family should? I felt the struggle of living up to my family’s expectations.

So, I watched their story and re-lived some of my own.

I drove home feeling drained. The power of the father and husband, Troy (James Williams), sent me reeling back to powerful men in my family who believed they knew what was best and let everyone know it. I felt the endless energy needed by Rose (Elayn J. Taylor), who tried to read the waters and only speak when she thought her words could make a difference. The concern expressed by Marion McClinton in his depiction of Jim Bono, the longtime friend who witnessed the changes in his friend and struggled to stop a bad outcome. Cory’s desire to stand apart and identify himself was both heart-wrenching and exhilarating. I’ve known them all; their intensity exhausted me.

This story isn’t about baseball or any one group’s experience at any particular time. This is a story about how we pass forward what has shaped us at our core. Go to the Penumbra and be prepared to spend some time, let the story seep into you, and see your own connections. Your time will be well spent.

Barbara Gorski coordinates business service learning programs at the University of St. Thomas.