Fenced In? Tumisho Masha Leads as Play Explores Dimensions of Fences
The Joburg Theatre is staging August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning production Fences as part of Black History Month, which runs from 5 – 26 February 2023. It plays out like numerous family therapy sessions, exposing and laying bare so many veiled difficulties that speak both to the South African and the American complexities of then and now.
Wilson’s play tells the story of Troy Maxson, an African American garbage collector and ex-convict who once had a promising future in baseball. The cast is comprised of Troy, his wife Rose; Cory, their son; Gabriel, Troy’s brother; Lyon’s, an older son from a previous marriage; Jim Bono, Troy’s best friend, and Reynell, Troy’s illegitimate child.
Tumisho Masha had just 10 days to step out of the role of Jim Bono, into the immense role of Troy when John Kani, who was originally cast as Troy, fell ill. Masha says that he had to step into a very different set of boxer shorts and decide whether to sink or swim. Desperate to learn Troy’s extensive dialogue in such a short space of time, his inner voice spurred him along and he heard himself saying, “This is not where it ends. I’m going to keep doing what I need to do and I’m going to get it right”. And get it right, he did. Of the role, he says, “We’re both big people, with large personalities. In this role, I was able to be as big as ever.”
One of the many poignant lines that resonate in the current South African reality is when Bono says, “Some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in.” In the play, this speaks to Rose’s great love for her family and her desire to keep them close to her. Bono also observes that to some people, fences keep people out and push people away. In a South African context, we live behind walls and fences that get higher and higher whilst trying to escape the ever-increasing crime. Masha broadens the interpretation of this quote, saying that he believes that psychological fences can be of crucial importance, thereby encouraging society to have healthy boundaries.
With regards to the locking of horns between Troy and Cory – father and son – Masha came to the character with a wellspring of insights. He accentuates that if fathers don’t deal with their past traumas, they will pass it on to their kids, and their kids, in turn, will pass it on to the next generation. In the play, the relationship between Troy and Cory mirrors an intensified replay of Troy and his father’s unresolved and problematic relationship.
Scrutinizing the role of the father further, Masha raises the harsh reality of the South African context where up to 60% of South African children don’t get to grow up with their biological fathers. Given these conditions, he acknowledges that even a father as flawed as Troy is, is preferable to the harsh South African reality, where there is no father figure, which can often result in toxic masculinity, despite single mothers’ admirable efforts.
Masha acknowledges how fortunate he was to have grown up with both his parents, and for him, the picture of family that is explored in the play resonates very deeply. “I’m a man who is very committed to family and who believes that if you want to fix a nation, start with the family.”
Whether it is the political, the role of family, fatherhood, race, masculinity, gender issues, mortality, or friendship there are countless themes running through this dense work, which can attest to the myriad lessons that we can reflect on as South Africans.