Lenny Henry gives a truly outstanding – dare I say it, truly great – performance as the Pittsburgh garbage man and washed-up former baseball star Troy Maxson in August Wilson's Fences (1983), a play that is rightly recognised as a twentieth century African-American classic.
Wilson's project of writing a cycle of theatre for that century, one play for each decade, is one of the noblest in the American theatre, and Fences, set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1957, the high point, partly because, in Troy, Wilson created the greatest black American character since Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones.
Like the Emperor, Troy is seriously flawed: he has an uneasy relationship with both grown-up sons, cheats on his wife, and drinks himself stupid every Friday night; almost incidentally to the energy of this play, he killed a man in a blur and was jailed for fifteen years.
And yet, and certainly in Henry's performance, he's a life force and a symbol of evolutionary resistance who invokes an ancestral history of cotton-picking penury and a generation of the black underclass who simply went walking until they came to "something." Troy is building a fence round his back yard to secure that "something."
He excelled at baseball, but at a time when black players were excluded from the major league sides, so he's jealous of his second son, Cory's (Ashley Zhangazha), potential pre-eminence on the field, undermining his progress; his elder son, Lyons (Peter Bankole), is a jazz-loving drifter to whom he grudgingly "subs" a few dollars.
Their damaged, war-wounded relative, Gabriel (Ako Mitchell), is another hopeless case, ineffectively, it turns out, blowing his trumpet, while Tanya Moodie's magnificent portrayal of Troy's wife, Rose, represents the spine of the family, bridging the generations, and committing an act of maternal generosity that saves Troy's bacon.
As in Arthur Miller's doomed travelling salesman, Willy Loman, whom Wilson must have had in mind, we get a modern tragic hero seen by the light of a changing America and his own personal eclipse. And Paulette Randall's production, which certainly matches the British premiere in 1990 starring Yaphet Kotto as Troy and Adrian Lester as Cory, gives Henry the best possible support.
He's buttressed not only by Moodie and the excellent work of Zhangazha and Bankole, but also by Colin McFarlane as his neighbour and fellow worker Jim Bono, a nodding sideman who shares the Friday night gin bottle on the front porch and plans to buy his own wife a fridge when Troy completes his fencing.
Wilson's plays can sometimes be hard work, in a good way. But his last act is an astonishing theatrical post-script, with the surprise addition of sweet-singing Crystal Mills – one of three girls in the role – bonding with Cory, now a marine corporal, in Troy's jazz dog wail, an item dramatically akin to Archie Rice's Negro spiritual in The Entertainer, and Gabriel dancing up an angry storm.
Henry keeps the play alive with his non-stop comic joshing, perfect timing, physical lightness and growling natural authority. It's the must-see performance in town, and the silhouetted image of him wielding a baseball bat and inviting all-comers is one that I shall not easily forget.
Come on our hosted WhatsOnStage Outing on 17 July 2013 and get your top-price ticket, a free programme and access to our post-show Q&A with Lenny Henry and cast all for £30.00! (Normally £49.50 for ticket alone.) Click here to book