Disgraced/Fences – Carole Woddis.

London theatre is enjoying a feast of American classic and new drama at present.

After past American Pulitzer prize-winner, Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude  and James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner at the National Theatre, west London’s Bush Theatre has just finished a run of this year’s Pulitzer drama prize winner, Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced whilst the West End is hosting a revival of the 1987 drama Pulitzer winner, August Wilson’s Fences.

A big hitter, in the same league as O’Neill and Arthur Miller, Wilson (1945-2005) who wrote a mammoth charting of the African-American experience in the 20th century with a play for each decade writes full bloodied family dramas with the same kind of elegiac poetic yearning you can also detect in Tennessee Williams at his best.  Fire in the belly with epitaphs for lost dreams, lost opportunities, lives blighted by inner flaws or outer, social constraints.

Fences, then, in Paulette Randall’s production, newly arrived from Theatre Royal Bath and tour, reunites us with a play that was first seen in London in 1990 with a young Adrian Lester playing the baseball loving Cory, son of aspirational professional player, Troy, who believes his moribund sporting life destroyed by racial prejudice.

Like Arthur Miller’s Willy Lomax in Death of a Salesman, Troy is an emblematic, iconic American figure – a towering, embittered giant whose reduction to rubbish-man and prohibition from being allowed to play the game he loved colours all his relationships: with his loyal wife Rose, with Cory, Lyons, his older son and  Gabriel, his war-scarred brother, benignly crazed, possibly a visionary with a golden horn that never plays.

Fences, the fourth in Wilson’s historical cycle, written in 1983 but set in Pittsburg in 1957, a time of enormous upheaval in American race relations, sprawls and sometimes sags under its symbolism but through its anecdotes and family disputes, Wilson gives us a movingly vivid picture of the poverty, hardship and resilience of African-Americans over three generations.

The revelation of the production is undoubtedly Lenny Henry who inhabits Troy and reaches into his character’s soul as if he was born to play him – extraordinary achievement for one who only turned to straight acting comparatively recently.

Social realism meets family drama – this is the way so many of America’s great playwrights have told us about their world.  Ayad Akhtar follows right on in that tradition.

A four-hander, Disgraced, overshadowed by 9:11 and subsequent events, throbs with urgency and contemporary tensions.  Successful, apparently well assimilated (and self loathing) New York Muslim lawyer with white liberal wife, herself a promising artist-painter, confronts his own demons by way of dinner guests – Jewish arts curator and his Afro-American wife who is about to be promoted over his head.

Cue for heated, confrontational truth-telling about identity – once a Muslim always a Muslim? – and when the chips are down, where do one’s loyalties really lie?

In inherited genes, cultural inheritance or the mainstream society to which you aspire?

Shocking and brutally candid – it’s like Bruce Norris’ celebrated Clybourne Park without the cynicism – Akhtar acts agent provocateur to Islam and being a Muslim whilst somehow still compelling our sympathy for his central character Amir (wonderfully played by Hari Dhillon, Holby City’s sexy consultant, Michael Spence) and despite his emerging, horribly, as a wife-beater of Emily (played by the equally impressive Kirsty Bushell).

Postcards from the edge indeed, Akhtar has produced a clever, heart-felt cri de coeur for the Islamic outsider which sits interestingly beside Wilson’s Fences of thirty years earlier when it was the African-American experience of alienation and discrimination that demanded attention on the public stage.

Disgraced was at the Bush Theatre, London to June 29; Fences is at the Duchess Theatre, London to Sept 14; see www.nimaxtheatres.com.

Carole Woddis © 2013.