“Lean in and Listen:” APT’s “Fences” Star, Director Hope to Immerse Audiences in a Black Family’s Experience

Posted August 10, 2019

Fences News 1

By Robert Chappell, Madison 365, August 9, 2019

Ron OJ Parson has some things in common with Troy Maxson.

Troy, the central character in August Wilson’s seminal play Fences, carries a deep-seated heartache from never being able to play big-league baseball, despite being the home run king of the Negro Leagues. 

Parson didn’t make the big leagues either, but not because baseball was segregated — rather, he got sidetracked into a decades-long career in theater.

Still, Parson tells Madison365 that he’ll bring his athletic sensibilities to bear as he directs the American Players Theater production of Fences, opening this weekend and running through September at APT’s Hill Theater in Spring Green.

“Because I was an athlete, I kind of have an affinity for Troy’s character, so I do like to instill that sport aspect of it,” he says. “The athleticism and the sports aspect of it is very important to me, but also life and history. People say, ‘Well, (Fences) is not about racism,’ and this and that. Well, yes it is. Troy is a bitter guy because of that,” noting racism is the only thing that kept the fictional Troy and many real Black athletes from playing major-league professional sports.

Parson grew up as an athlete and went to the University of Michigan in 1971 as a walk-on for both football and baseball, beginning as a journalism major. He’d been acting as a hobby since the third grade, though, and happened to be walking through the theater building one day.

“I heard them rehearsing a play called Day of Absense, which is a play that I knew because the Negro Ensemble Company came to my junior high school,” he recalls. “When I heard it, I said, ‘I’m going to go in there and see what’s going on.’ This guy named James Simmons was teaching at the University of Michigan, invited me to join him and I came in and ended up playing a part in the play. I just realized I had been acting and directing since I was a teenager, so I said, ‘I think I’m going to try this.’”

Over the course of the next 40-plus years, Parson has acted on stage and television, founded a theater company in Chicago, and directed countless productions — including nine of the 10 plays in August Wilson’s iconic Pittsburgh Cycle. The Cycle documents the African American experience through the Twentieth Century, with one play set in each decade from 1900 to 1999. Parson will complete the cycle when he directs King Hedley the Second at the Court Theater in Chicago this fall.

Fences is the entry in the cycle that represents the 1950s. 

Parson first directed a production of Fences back in 2005, and hopes to bring to this production a lot of what he’s learned since then.

“I think what I bring to it in general, and this one in particular because I’m an older guy now, is just the history of it. It’s got a rich history,” he says. “(I bring to it) my experience with the language and the depth of characters. I do feel like it’s such a rich, rich canvas for any actor to be able to take those words and find the music in the play, which I look for that all the time. I do try to maintain the poetry of August’s language.”

One of the actors who’ll bring that language to life in the role of Troy is David Alan Anderson, who’s also got some experience with the script, having played Troy several times across the country, including at Milwaukee Repertory Theater. He’s also acted in eight of the 10 plays of the Pittsburgh Cycle.

Read the full story here