Seattle Repertory Theatre marks the 25th anniversary of August Wilson's African-American family drama "Fences" with a theatrical run directed by Tim Bond and with costumes designed by Wilson's widow, Constanza Romero.
As they chatted, reminisced, joked and touted one another’s artistic talents over coffee recently, Constanza Romero and Tim Bond were a two-member mutual admiration society, marking a special occasion.
The cafe where they met was just a few blocks from Romero’s Capitol Hill home, and a spot where her late husband, celebrated playwright August Wilson, used to hang out to write and hold court with fans and friends.
The occasion: a joint interview to mark their collaboration on the new Seattle Repertory Theatre production of Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Fences.” Bond is directing; Romero is designing the costumes.
Though this is his first production at the Rep, Bond is no stranger here. Before leaving town in 1996 to become an associate artistic director at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Bond earned a master’s degree in drama from University of Washington, and spent more than a dozen years working with and heading up The Group Theatre, a major Seattle multicultural ensemble.
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Romero helped bring Bond, now head of New York’s Syracuse Stage, back to direct his first show in Seattle in over a decade. (His last: The Group’s version of “Buffalo Soldier,” at Center House Theatre in 1996.)
A warm, vivacious woman who closely oversees her late husband’s literary legacy, Romero didn’t hesitate when the Rep asked her to recommend a director for “Fences,” on the occasion of the play’s 25th anniversary. “There was no other person in my mind but Tim,” she said. “I know he directs August’s work extremely well.”
Certainly the avuncular yet earnest Bond has had some practice. During his years at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, he mounted three major Wilson works: “The Piano Lesson,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Gem of the Ocean.” He also hung out with the playwright (who died of cancer in 2005) at theater festivals and confabs.
“We had some really good times together but not enough,” Bond said.”August was a great raconteur, and I got the chance to hear about the last four plays he wrote, while he was writing them. He’d ask me, ‘Hey Tim, you got a minute?’ Then he’d go into a soliloquy for an hour, telling me the plot as if he had witnessed the events himself.”
Wilson saw Bond’s stagings of his works in Ashland, Ore., at OSF. The director recalls with a chuckle that Wilson was always gracious in his response, “but he’d ask questions sometimes. Questions like — ‘So, why did you do that?’ “
“Fences” has a special resonance for Bond.
One of Wilson’s most popular and performed works, the 1985 family drama (part of his 10-play cycle of 21st-century African-American life) was honored with a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award.
It opens in 1957, and concerns the volatile relationship between a black Pittsburgh garbageman, Troy Maxson (played at the Rep by James A. Williams), and his teenage son, Cory (Stephen Tyrone Williams, no relation).
Troy tries to thwart his son’s dreams of becoming a professional athlete — mainly because of his own bitter history as a talented baseball player whose career was derailed because of the racism that barred blacks from the major leagues.
The play also delves into Troy’s marital problems with his wife, Rose (Kim Staunton), and his relationship with his brother Gabriel (Craig Alan Edwards), a mentally disabled military vet.
“I have a 17-year-old son, the exact age of Cory at the beginning of the play,” said Bond. “And my father, who is 85 now, lives with us. So I’m thinking a lot about what gets passed down from generation to generation, and what it means be an African-American man.”
Troy is generally viewed as a complex, ambivalent figure, but Bond says he understands him perfectly. “He’s doing everything he knows to do, to protect his son,” the director stressed. “He knows the world is unfair and wants to save him from disappointment.
“The history of racial inequity in American pervades the play. Troy is only two steps, two generations away from slavery. You just don’t take 200 years of slavery and say, get over it.”
A key to directing “Fences,” and all Wilson plays, is laying claim to the language. The writer developed a distinctive theatrical argot — an earthy, allusive, profuse expression that flows in banter, pensive monologues, storytelling sessions.
“Shakespeare opened a window for me into August’s poetry, and helped me capture the rhythms and notes, the blues and jazz in his plays,” Bond explained. “Through the metaphors and the poetry he used, you can really unlock the souls of the characters.”
Romero nodded approvingly. A seasoned costume designer, she met Wilson while she was a grad student at Yale University, and got to know him as they toiled on the world premiere of his second Pulitzer Prize-winning effort, “The Piano Lesson.” (They moved to Seattle in 1990, married and their daughter Azula, now 12, was born here.)
Romero previously worked with Bond, doing costumes for Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog.”
But this is her first time designing “Fences.” “When I started on this, I was amazed at how many uniforms there are in the play, implied and seen,” she commented. “Prison, work and sports uniforms, even Rose’s apron. They represent to me the kinds of roles black people were allowed to fill in society, in 1957.”
She sees Troy’s destiny in “the coveralls he wears. He has the intelligence, the ability, the ambition to be more, but he’s stuck in the role of trash collector due to his race.”
The Rep’s version of “Fences” is a co-production with Syracuse Stage, where it will have a run in May. And there’s another, highly anticipated revival of the play coming to Broadway soon.
It features movie star Denzel Washington as Troy (a role originally played on Broadway by James Earl Jones). Romero is also designing costumes for that production. And to Bond’s delight, she related a star-struck story about attending the first day of rehearsals.
“It happened to be my birthday,” she confided, “and when we all went to lunch, Denzel sat right next to me. And he led the singing of ‘Happy Birthday.’ How great is that?”
“Pretty great,” said Bond.