Race relations, issues of diversity and the struggles of a minority family are front and center at theatre’s first production of the semester.
The Sam Houston State University Theatre Department will perform “Fences,” a play by August Wilson centered around an African American family’s experiences living in the 1950s as minorities coping with everyday struggles.
The play first premiered in 1983 and generated response from audiences and critics alike: winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for Drama, the Tony Award for best play also in 1987 and then another Tony Award in 2010 for best revival of a play.
Tom Prior, Associate Chair and Associate Professor of Theatre, is the director of the show. Prior said the importance of diversity and its growth on campus gave importance to the issue’s showing on the SHSU stage.
“I wanted to direct this show because it is a great piece of American theatre,” Prior said. “Our department is becoming more diverse. The main reason is because it is a terrific play and one that people should see.”
Prior also said it was a difficult show to cast, not only because of the sheer talent and size of SHSU’s theatre department, but also because the campus is becoming more diverse. Even with a show like “Fences,” where a specific ethnicity is necessary for certain characters, the talent pool of students was still rather large.
“It was a difficult show to cast because we have a lot of students who are very good,” Prior said. “It’s always a difficult decision to cast a show. You could really have two or three different casts because of the talent level in the department. It’s a very specialized show because it’s an African American cast so, in our department of 260-270 students, I had about 45 to choose from. So in that regard, it was a more difficult show to cast.”
Prior believes “Fences” is an important play for students to see and experience because the historical references to civil rights still resound today. He explained that even though the play takes place in the 1950s, Wilson’s style of writing and vision has made this play relatable to this day.
“It is telling the story about an African American family,” Prior said. “We are African American actors that are not playing stereotypes. These are real people that speak in a certain vernacular. I think it raised questions of racial tensions that are prevalent today…I’m always a proponent for theatre for social change and I think August Wilson raises some really good questions.”
Prior also explained that the show is relatable through the theme of family. The production deals with the struggles and trials that every family at some point faces, regardless of race.
“It’s also a show about family,” Prior said. “It’s a show about redemption. It’s a show about hope, and at the end – without giving too much away – it gives a sense that there is hope for this family.”
With the semester starting to pick up, the cast had very little time to put this show together. Prior said the shows preparations mirrored professional theatre’s.
“There are about five weeks to put a show up,” Prior said. “The process has been great for the students because it really reflects how it will be in the professional world where you have three or four weeks to rehearse a show, put it through technical rehearsals, then actually perform it.”
Prior also said the show challenged him as a director to put on a show that deals with some difficult subject matter.
“I’ve had an amazing experience with this show,” Prior said. “The camaraderie of everyone working together on this show in such a short amount of time to really say something with it because I think the show has an incredible message. It was a difficult show for me as a director because it deals with things that people are not comfortable talking about, [like] racial tension, and that is something that I have taken away from it that will help me grow as a director.”
Prior hopes the audiences will take something away from this show and hopes the production will stir up questions in the viewers.
“I hope that they take away, again, the idea of hope and the idea of new beginning and the idea of passing things from generation to generation,” Prior said. “I think there is that sense that we can make things better, we can look into our own lives and do a bit of reflection as a family.”
“Fences” opens tomorrow and will run through Feb. 21 in the Erica Starr Theater. Tickets can be purchased at the University Theatre Center Box Office.