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Review: Jubilee's 'Fences' Powerful, But Delivery Misses Mark

By Tom Sime, 90.1 Theater Critic

Dallas, TX –

Jubilee Theatre has reopened its Sundance Square space after extensive remodeling, and the new auditorium is marvelous. It's larger, with room for about 50 more patrons. And the stage is more accommodating, now that two support columns have been moved out of the way. The restrooms are bigger, the lighting grid is new, and the sightlines are improved.

The ribbon-cutting and reopening would seem to be the perfect setup for Jubilee to launch a new musical - the kind of show it's best known for - especially given all that extra room for house choreographer Keisha Breaker-Halliburton to have free reign. But instead, director Rudy Eastman has taken this moment to make his first attempt at staging a drama by August Wilson. It's "Fences," Wilson's 1987 Pulitzer and Tony winner about an abusive father in 1950's Philadelphia.

Now, Jubilee has always been good at musical comedies first, straight comedies second, and heavy dramas a distant third. So if this had come off better, it would have been a breakthrough. But Jubilee has not renovated its strong suit along with its theater, and "Fences" is just okay.

Lloyd W.L. Barnes Jr. plays Troy Maxson, the role originated by James Earl Jones on Broadway. Troy's usually a barrel-chested bear, but here he's more a bantam rooster. That doesn't detract too much, if at all - after all, a mean rooster can be pretty scary - but under Eastman's direction, Barnes overdoes the bluster, making "Fences" a one-note rant for much of its running time.

Regina Washington is earnest and effective as Troy's patient wife, Rose, but she's a bit monotonous too, and there's also little sense of chemistry between them. Brian C. Duncan has some good moments as Cory, their son, whose professional sports aspirations are crushed by Troy as impractical, though we suspect he's jealous; with the segregation that stunted Troy's own baseball career lifted, Cory has a chance to outshine his father, and apparently Dad can't bear that.

The beautiful, realistic set nicely shows off the new space's potential, but the play doesn't do the same for Jubilee's potential. Wilson's writing is so powerful that the drama can't help but get under the skin; Barnes and Washington are both fine actors, and their performances are flawed, not bad.

But how much more glorious this new beginning would have been if Jubilee had played to its core audience, which loves those original - and often brilliant - musicals, written by Eastman and house composer Joe Rogers. A new one, or even a revival or revue, would have been just the ticket. But with Mr. Rogers sidelined for "Fences," it's as if Jubilee is holding back. And while the cast of "Fences" is taking its bows, you can't help thinking, "Okay, we got that over with. Now let's do a real Jubilee show."

 

Tom Sime is a theater critic for The Dallas Morning News. "Fences" opens Friday and continues through February 20th at Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth. Admission is $12 - $20, with two-for-one admission to Saturday matinees. For more information, call (817) 338-4411.