This holiday season, he will return as Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theatre, but first Craig Wallace directs the National Players’ touring production of “Fences” at the Olney Theatre Center, in Olney, Maryland, Thursday through Sunday.
Founded in 1949 by Father Gilbert V. Hartke of Catholic University, the National Players is the nation’s oldest touring theater organization. Wallace himself performed in Tour 42 and now directs “Fences” in the 73rd tour, where audiences are invited to pay what you can for admission.
“They’re taking two plays on the road, ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and ‘Fences,'” Wallace told WTOP. “This is their first all African-American cast they’re sending out on the road.”
Winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play, “Fences” is one of the most famous works in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle — a series of 10 plays, each covering a different decade of African-American life over a century in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“It’s about the African-American experience, reaching back to our roots back in Africa, but how that translates once we’re here,” Wallace said. “There wasn’t a lot here for us but family — whether it’s your biological family or neighbors down the street. The depiction of how we were able to survive as African-Americans throughout the decades is classic.”
Set in 1957, the story follows 53-year-old garbage collector Troy Maxon, a former Negro League star who never got to play in Major League Baseball because he arrived before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. He projects those insecurities onto his son, Cory, a teenage football star, and his wife, Rose, who holds the family together.
“He learned how to play baseball in prison,” Wallace said. “He struggles with the notion of: Why me? Why don’t I get a chance to be part of the American Dream? … Rose is ultimately the glue of the family, her resilience, patience, dedication to the Maxon unit.”
As for the visual setting, Wallace promises, “You will see the iconic backyard; you will not, however, see the baseball on the string. Having to transport a tree was problematic. You’ll also notice that we’ve worked around actually sawing and building a fence.”
It all builds to an inspirational, spiritual moment with Troy’s younger brother, Gabriel, who sustained head injuries during World War II and now regularly carries his trumpet.
“If you know August’s stuff, there’s always some magic,” Wallace said. “This play is as realistic as they get in terms of raw emotion and the life of the characters, but at the end of the play, Troy goes home — and everyone acknowledges that Troy is actually home.”