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Milwaukee Rep taps director Lou Bellamy to take a swing at 'Fences'

After a long season, the Milwaukee Rep is looking for one more home run to close out the year. So they’re taking a swing at Fences — arguably one of the greatest works written by American playwright August Wilson — and sending up to the plate a director whose batting average with Wilson plays is equally exceptional.

Penumbra Theatre founder and co-artistic director Lou Bellamy will direct Fences.

Penumbra Theatre founder and co-artistic director Lou Bellamy will direct Fences.

That director is Lou Bellamy, who founded the acclaimed African-American company Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota. That theater is where Wilson’s professional career began, and where Bellamy’s long association with Wilson’s works — as an artistic director and actor as well as a stage director — began.

Over the past 40 years, Bellamy says he’s been involved with dozens of productions of Wilson’s plays, including his entire 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle tracking the lives of African-American families in the 20th century. Fences, set in the 1950s, is a part of that cycle (sixth in itsinternal chronology, but the third written, in 1983), and Bellamy says it’s one of Wilson’s best, a “wonderful” production that tells the story of a black garbage man, Troy Maxson, who grapples with his family’s hopes and dreams in a rapidly changing world.

Bellamy has both directed Fences and played the role of Troy multiple times, but he says the Rep's production (co-produced with Arizona Theatre Company and Indiana Repertory Theatre) features one of the strongest casts he’s ever worked with. He attributes that strength in part to the presence of two Penumbra company members, David Alan Anderson (Troy) and Lou's brother Terry Bellamy (playing Troy’s brother Gabriel), who have helped him anchor the production and emphasize the ensemble feel he’s cultivated at Penumbra.

Within that ensemble, Bellamy says he’s worked with each actor to develop versions of their characters that play to their strengths — an approach different from that of many directors, who walk in with a particular vision and ask actors to adhere to it. “I tend to be the kind of director that looks for the strong points of actors and makes choices that they’re capable of excelling in,” he says. “It’s different always depending on the company. These are pros. I’m not pouring my will into their head.”

In Fences, garbage man Troy (David Alan Anderson) struggles to do what is right for his family. Photo: Tim Fuller.

In Fences, garbage man Troy (David Alan Anderson) struggles to do what is right for his family. Photo: Tim Fuller.

There are some core themes Bellamy has made sure to emphasize in this production, though. The more immediately apparent one is the father-son relationships Troy has with his two children: Lyons (James T. Alfred), the elder son from a previous relationship, and Cory (Edgar Sanchez), his son with wife Rose (Kim Staunton). Bellamy says both times he’s played the role of Troy, he’s been struck by the universality of the troubled character, with patrons of all ethnicities approaching him after productions to tell him they see their own fathers in the role.

More complex, Bellamy says, is Troy’s depiction as a tragic hero. He is clearly the protagonist of the play, yet Bellamy says he is nonetheless “difficult to like.” Over the course of Fences, we see how racism has shaped Troy’s life — an exceptional baseball player, he was unable to play in Major League Baseball due to the color barrier having not yet been broken, and in the present day he faces opposition to moving up even in his job as a garbage man.

But we also see how those injustices have made it difficult for Troy to realize that he’s developed defensive, myopic biases that sabotage his efforts to fight back. For instance, Troy opposes Cory’s participation in football, despite the fact that a scholarship would give his son an otherwise unobtainable path to college. “(Troy) is blind to the issues that are affecting him, while everyone around him, including the audience, sees them,” Bellamy says. “He’s warped by the racism that is part and parcel of American society … but he has no idea that has shaped him."

Bellamy says he’s anticipating the chance to see how Milwaukee audiences respond to the work, especially since this is his first time working with the Rep. He’s been gradually passing the reins of Penumbra to his daughter, co-artistic director Sarah Bellamy, and as his duties with the company have declined, he’s taken on more freelance work across the country with companies like the Rep.

It’s not as easy to translate the work he’s done with Penumbra to other companies as his fellow artistic directors would like, Bellamy says. But that hasn’t stopped him from venturing out anyway, using the knowledge he’s acquired in decades of theater work to tell stories like Fences — stories that need to be told by directors who, like him, have spent their lives learning to convey the social and cultural nuances of black life on stage.

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of Fences runs April 29 to May 22. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com.

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