The Duchess Theatre, Covent Garden is the venue for Lenny Henry’s new play, Fences directed by Paulette Randall the first black woman to direct a play in the West End. I was thankful for the opportunity to see the man tread the boards at this famous West End location.
Whilst flicking through the programme, which impressively illustrated the early images of ‘coloured’ baseball players in the U.S. it struck me when getting to the actors’ bios that, Lenny Henry CBE, has been in numerous productions for T.V. Radio and film but is still considered a fledging actor in terms of the stage, receiving The Evening Standard’s best newcomer award, in 2010 for his depiction of the famous Moor, Othello. His biography goes back to New Faces 1975, which gave us the first sight of a young 16 year old who later became the biggest African Caribbean T.V star in the U.K. throughout the 80’s and early 90’s. The extensive, bio lists every production he has been involved with but omits, The Black and White Minstrel show, which at his height played to over 18 million viewers and has no doubt placed him in the annals of British TV dynasty forever.
Although he now views this as a dark part of his illuminating past, it is clear looking at the ages of those within the Duchess Theatre, they would have seen his journey from Tiswas to the West End and have forgiven or forgotten his five year televisual faux pas.
He recently hit out at BAFTA for their lack of colour at awards ceremonies and also mentions his discomfort at being labelled a coconut by members of his own family and the black community for these early controversial roles. Henry has long, struggled with the notion that many still view him as just a ‘funny black man’ from the telly’ and worries he may never be taken seriously. But I feel the man doth protest too much as Henry shows he can really dig deep and draw out the soul of his character as he hones his thespian abilities and takes on the role of Troy, in the heart of Theatre land. Troy, is full of strong African American bravado and shows little concern for the rules of the white hegemony. The play takes few prisoners and we were thrown headlong into 1950’s America as the word ‘nigga’ is used within the opening segment and I felt a slight unease at it came from ‘our own’ Henry into the ears of the audience. 1950’s America was not a period of political correctness.
Wilson’s Troy is the antithesis of Uncle Tom. Henry has chosen well showing us his ability to seamlessly portray, inner turmoil, crude honesty, and humour, taking on the heady, role that has been previously played by global acting veterans James Earl Jones and Denzel Washington.
This beautifully crafted play from the beautifully crafted words of celebrated, African-American, playwright, August Wilson certainly hit the right note and was a surprisingly quick 2 hours 40 minutes. Written in 1985, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning play about an African-American family is set against the backdrop of a racially divided America of the 1950’s slowly coming to terms with social change. Depicting how African American men, had to quickly come to terms with the fact that the American dream may not include them in its slumber.
Although all the scenes played out around the steps of the home, modelled loosely on the Pittsburgh neighbourhood of Wilson’s youth, the play is in no way claustrophobic as the dialogue enables us to see the issues of race and economic depravity which existed across American at the time. Henry’s ability to hold the stage is truly impressive. His American accent is credible, but as the script required singing, I felt I could hear the ghost of Henry’s 80’s comedic character, the leather-clad, Theophilus P Wildebeeste enter stage left.
Also, there were times Troy would raise his voice in a manner of disbelief, with the same comedic inflective we have heard from Henry in our youth and I thought this is something he should lose from his acting arsenal.
But these awkward, flashbacks were short-lived as the intensity of the play kept me gripped as the scenes were skilfully acted out. Front row seats enabled me to almost hear the tears as they fell as Troy pleaded with the skies to proffer him the life he felt he deserved and due to the circumstance of race he was not offered fair play.
Troy’s anger permeates the family life he has struggled to eke out for himself. Cory (Ashley Zhangazha), a gifted high school, American football player, clashes with his father’s memories of bygone days when his father’s sports prowess was the talk of the town and form a large part of the story’s premise. Troy’s eldest son Lyons (Peter Bankole), has a fractured respect towards his father due to his father’s absence when he was growing up. His father reluctantly pays penance every payday and his character provides us with the likeable but fallible drifter, musically gifted but emotionally scarred as he also struggles to win his fathers warmth and affection. The wife dynamic, (Rose, Tanya Moodie), often proves difficult for male writers, especially when dealing with a very patriarchal period in history. Wilson does not make the wife submissive but you feel she has learnt to be compliant for family peace, not judging her husband too harshly and not baiting him too publicly but her tongue is sharp and you can feel Wilson, whose own parents had a troubled marriage, has created a woman who is not afraid of speaking her mind but knows how to occasionally, bite her tongue.
I was concerned, however, just how overtly sexual their relationship seemed to be as Troy continued to use innuendo and sexualised gestures when talking to and about his wife and more than once she walked up the small steps to their simply built, wooded home, buttocks swishing from left, to right, portraying a woman who provides a sexual crutch for her troubled husband to rest on.
Gabriel, (Ako Mitchell) plays Troy’s brain-damaged brother, injured in the war, his $3000 war pension helped to purchase the house the family now live in, whilst he lives in small room across town, only popping around to get the odd sandwich and peddle fruit, clutching his horn to blow away the ‘devil’s hounds’. Another familiar face is Colin Mcfarlane, who plays Troy’s long time friend, Jim Bono they work together on the bins and their relationship splinters as they continue work on the fence around the small home, which forms the backbone of the story.
The fence is used metaphorically, to simultaneously, describe protection and incarceration and a man aware of his own mortality. Troy is building the fence to outlast him and therefore takes his time. An excellent cast, with some new faces who may well be left in the shade of the numerous headlines garnered by the elder statesman but my hope is that they will bask in the excellence of a brilliant show directed by Paulette Randall and enjoy the packed shows Henry’s celebrity will bring.
Henry has won numerous awards and it will be interesting to see what awards come his way for his role in an all black cast, performing in a non Shakespearian play, portraying an African American. As I looked around the full theatre it seemed clear that the man from Dudley has the freedom of WC1 for some time yet and we await his next venture with curiosity.
He still has not triumphed in film and this seems likely to be the obvious route for him and he has stated that directing is not something he would shy away from. Henry CBE, belongs to an exclusive club with very few members; a black man in the U.K who has lasted on British TV for over 30 years and a face, welcomed into the homes of families of various shades, ages and political persuasions.
As the play ended and the audience clapped loudly, Henry, smiled a big broad, familiar smile and came back and bowed for the second time, calling upon his, talented co-stars to share in the applause once again.
Watching him as he looked around the, appreciative, Duchess Theatre audience, I felt that this is a man, now evolving and enjoying the tag of ‘thespian’, enjoying connecting with an audience that is willing him on to continue, to create great work.
And as he pointed suddenly to a group of black women at the front of the audience, giving them a special thanks, I wondered if he feels that their obvious stamp of approval would enable him to be more comfortable in his skin and recognize that if he starts to build it then we will come.