Amid thorns, Rose blooms

The female lead's monologue in 'Fences' is a dream moment for an actress: full of fury, shock and regret.

Theater

January 27, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

You know that she's never unloaded on her husband this way before. After 18 years of being the good wife, mother, homemaker and making the best of it, she hears him tell her there's some other woman, and worse. Who could blame her for snapping?

So stand back.

Because Rose Maxson will have her moment, finally, much to the astonishment of Troy Maxson, so immersed in his own frustration and pride that you know he hasn't seen it coming. Like most August Wilson dramas, Fences is chiefly a story of men, African-American men. A woman owns a moment in this one, however, that may well be the emotional peak of the play, the current run of which at Everyman Theatre has been extended a week through Feb. 10.

Since the show made its debut at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985, Rose's page-long monologue in Act Two, Scene One has become a set piece, a standard on the audition circuit, especially for African-American actresses, says Jennifer L. Nelson, who directed the Everyman production.

"There aren't that many monologues for black women that have the scope of it, the emotional range, that goes so far as exploding the myth of the happy housewife," says Nelson. "There are a whole lot of people of my generation for whom that rings as a kind of revolutionary statement."

August Wilson scholar Sandra Shannon says the monologue "has become the litmus test for actresses. I guess because of the range of emotions."

Fences is set in a backyard of an unnamed big city in 1957, a time of particular historic moment for the story Wilson tells. A few civil rights watersheds have already occurred, several more are to come. The women's movement is yet to take shape. And there stands Rose.

A woman's choices

She's no revolutionary, but agonizing choices are thrust upon her. The monologue makes an explosive preamble to her decision, as she's caught between what Shannon has called "the innate desire to nurture and the concomitant need to maintain self-respect and sense of self."

Shannon notes that the women in Wilson's plays tend not to be as fully drawn as the men, but Nelson says Rose's monologue demonstrates that "there's more to her life than making Troy's dinner and washing clothes."

She uncorks this outburst as Troy is telling her about his involvement with another woman and how the affair relieves his frustration with his life. A former Negro Leagues slugger born too late to parlay his considerable athletic talent into a major league career, Troy works as a city garbage collector.

"It's not easy for me to admit that I been standing in the same place for 18 years," Troy tells Rose.

"I been standing with you!" says Rose. "I been right here with you, Troy. I got a life too. I gave 18 years of my life to stand in the same spot with you."

She has thought about other men, she says, but she stayed: "I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn't take me no 18 years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn't never going to bloom. ... I gave everything I had to try and erase the doubt that you wasn't the finest man in the world."

It goes on.

"I just had to keep saying it, to find out what the truth of it was," says Aakhu Freeman, the Washington actress who plays the part. "It would be easy to just be angry. There's so much more happening."

The speech is some parts lamentation, some parts fury and shock. When Rose goes so far as to lash out physically, it's only in the sheer frustration of never really being heard or seen.

"Aakhu is a very thoughtful and peaceful person," says Nelson. "It was a challenge for her to get to the rage that I wanted to see. ... I kept pushing her. She wasn't finding it."

The character seemed familiar enough to Freeman, who saw in Rose "a woman like my grandmother and my great-grandmother. I came from the same kind of people who migrated from the South to the North in the 1950s. She's the kind of person who loves you with food."

'An onus on any actress'

The monologue, though, was a more difficult matter.

Freeman recalls the director "pointed out there needed to be some [physical] contact. For Rose and every woman in the audience. It wasn't easy for me to do that. It took a while for me to find that in myself. I don't usually go around hitting people.

"Up until the last two days of rehearsal," she says, it wasn't working.

Beyond that, says Freeman, "one of the challenges is pacing. You could start out really high at the beginning and end up with nothing."

Famous dramatic monologues after a while become like familiar songs or musical compositions. Audience members are apt to have heard it before and be especially critical about interpretations. Then there's the pressure on a performer working in the shadow of some famous actor's rendition of a famous speech.

"There is an onus on any actress who's going to do that speech," says Vincent Lancisi, Everyman Theatre's artistic director.

Freeman says she'd heard about the Rose monologue before she was cast. For all the reasons mentioned above, she says, she's grateful "I didn't realize it was a standard."

Women in the audience have received Rose's monologue with an array of audible affirmations. A sigh, an amen, an empathetic "mmm-hmm." Last week the theater was full of Western High School girls, and they cheered and stamped their feet.

"At key points," says Freeman, "they had to give Rose a verbal thumbs up."

Fences continues at the Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St., through Feb. 10. Call 410-752-2208.

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