The renovated Jubilee Theatre opens the curtain this weekend for its first theatrical production, the Waco debut of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fences.”
The 1983 play, part of the late playwright’s 10-play series on the black experience in the 20th century, concerns a 1950s black trash collector looking back at his past and fearing the end of his life. For director Francine Lumbard, it’s a play with black characters and situations, but also universal issues and truths.
The production will feature a rarity on Waco stages: a local, black cast. So why is a white woman directing? Lumbard, who wrote and directed “The History Lesson” last year at the Jubilee, said such a question is limiting.
“It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning play for a reason. It’s about the black experience, but it’s not just the black experience,” she said. Lumbard, who holds a master’s degree in theater directing from Baylor University, teaches theater at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in addition to her work as director of the Lutheran Ministries Legal Assistance Project.
Her “The History Lesson” was a dramatic staging presented at the Jubilee Theatre last year as part of a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. That work used the 1916 public lynching of Jesse Washington, called “the Waco horror,” as a starting point for contemporary racial reconciliation.
“Fences,” one of the late black playwright Wilson’s best-known plays, concerns trash collector Troy Maxson (Royce Montgomery), a former Negro League baseball star now in his 50s, living with his wife, Rose (Carol Dugat), in a modest home.
His younger son, Cory (Ramad Carter), lives with them and Lyons (Omari Williams), an older son by another woman, drops by, usually to ask for money. Best friend Jim Bono (Marshall Baldwin III) provides a ready audience, while Troy’s brother, Gabriel (Steven Walker-Webb), who suffered a head wound in World War II, thinks he’s the angel Gabriel.
Troy struggles not only with his situation as a black trash collector but the consequences of his past actions. Lumbard often has her theater students compare and contrast Maxson with Willie Loman, the failed salesman of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”
“You have father-son issues, adultery, aspirations vs. reality and the same time period,” she said.
The play represents the first major theatrical production in the 220-seat facility, part of Mission Waco’s complex on N. 15th Street, since a renovation of the theater’s interior was completed in November. Since then, the Jubilee has hosted a cultural dance/food night, a Valentine’s concert and a talent show, though not a play presented over several performances.
Mission Waco Executive Director Jimmy Dorrell believes the Jubilee can act as a cultural anchor in the neighborhood, not only offering plays and entertainment but also performing and artistic opportunities for local youths and neighborhood residents. Dorrell said the arts can help form community and bridge barriers.
“I’m really excited about ‘Fences.’ It’s our first step into an honest-to-goodness production,” he said.
Working as the play’s assistant director and the Jubilee’s interim director, in fact, is Walker-Webb, a product of Mission Waco’s after-school youth programs. Walker-Webb, a University of North Texas graduate, not only has helped Lumbard with the play’s director and stage management, but chauffeured actors to and from rehearsals, built sets and assembled costumes.
“It’s been wonderful to have Stevie as an assistant director,” Lumbard said.
“Fences’ ” cast is mostly new to performing in plays, though some are experienced in appearing before the public. Montgomery, who plays the drama’s central character, has years of experience as a singer and promoter, known not only for the regular music revues that he stages in Waco, but for his experience as a performer in Branson, Mo. Dugat, who plays Troy’s wife Rose, ran for Waco City Council last year and has been an active advocate for East Waco and its economic development.
Lumbard said the play has been a learning experience for actors, producers and, starting this weekend, the community.
“I love this play and I’m hoping we’ll bring to it what it deserves,”