A Fine Modern Tragedy: Road’s “Broken Fences”

Eight or nine years ago, two American playwrights had the same idea: “What if a white family moves into a black neighborhood?”
Of course, that’s the reverse of the classic Raisin in the Sun, where the black Younger family buys a house in a white Chicago suburb.

One of the two writers built his play around Raisin. Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park (which won the Pulitzer and a Tony) first shows the white families joining to keep out the Youngers; then, 50 years later, the all-black neighborhood tries to block a white family from buying a home to tear it down and build a new one.

The other writer, Steven Simoncic, made his play a stand-alone.  Broken Fences doesn’t refer to Raisin at all (it doesn’t need to; few could miss the kinship). Simoncic also focuses on what happens after the move-in, instead of before.

Ben Theobald, Bruce A. Lemon Jr., Mia Fraboni, Coronado Romero.

Ben Theobald, Bruce A. Lemon Jr., Mia Fraboni, Coronado Romero.

Broken Fences takes place in two back yards. One is behind Hoody’s aging family home, the other behind Czar and April’s sparkling new house, built where Hoody’s aunt used to live. Czar and the pregnant April are bringing new lives into their ultramodern dwelling; Hoody and his fiancée D are trying to sustain old ones in their worn-out abode —  Hoody’s own past, his drop-in brother Marz, the memories of their mother, a live-in hustler named Esto.

Surrounding these people, as they struggle to discover each other and build relationships, is the fast-moving, money-driven world of gentrification. Starbuck’s, Red Lobster and other advance agents of pirate capitalism have seized outposts in Garfield Park, and neither the longtime residents nor the newcomers fully grasp the changes.

Broken Fences successfully brings a big, complex social issue down to its actual shape in the lives of individuals. Yet as cruelly as social and economic changes impinge on these folks, gentrification isn’t what matters most — it’s the people. As they try to learn one another and find ways to connect, each of them also struggles to find a way forward in a world they don’t control, or even understand very well.

There’s not a happy ending here, and there shouldn’t be. The fact that we wish for one is a testimony to the fine work these artists do — Simoncic writes real people, and the actors breathe full life into each one.

Hoody anchors the piece — it’s his world we (and the new neighbors) enter, his faith that has gathered his improvised family into the old home, and his crisis we sit with at the play’s end. Bruce A. Lemon Jr. gives a subtle yet commanding performance, connecting us to Hoody at once, and keeping us with him through thick and thin.

Donna Simone Johnson lets D’s power emerge more slowly. She seems almost marginal at first, yet gradually reveals herself as a force holding faith and family together as firmly as Hoody. Johnson also has a lyrical gift that makes Simoncic’s lines sing.

As the new neighbors, Coronado Romero (Czar) and Mia Fraboni (April) journey from an almost-confident innocence — in which they think they know more than they do — through painful learning. Romero nicely shows the role of paterfamilias suddenly unhinging a man; Fraboni peels away the young mother’s layers carefully, and holds them in a fragile but fierce balance.

The secondary characters have, as usual, less backstory and fewer conflicts, but the actors serve them well. Ben Theobald creates a simmering Esto, full of drug- and anxiety-fueled energy, clueless about how to survive; as Marz, James Holloway shows us a similarly besieged man who’s smart enough to seek an angle, some way to work the system to his — and his family’s — advantage.

Ivy Khan and Kris Frost play a couple raising their child in the white suburbs, who are appalled at what their friends are doing. Both do lovely, understated work. Frost gives us an eager, insensitive Spence who keeps hearing what he’s said and then feeling abashed; Khan’s Barb is sharper (Simoncic’s pun, not mine), frank with judgments, quick to retract points that wound, always with an eye on keeping the peace.

Master set designer John Iacovelli creates a crowded, lively and easy-to-read world out of two back yards. Michele Young’s costumes are flawless and expressive. Derrick McDaniel’s lighting shifts subtly with moods, and his graffiti projections are a delight, half realistic, half magical. That “magical realism” is part of the storytelling, and director Andre Barron moves us seamlessly from true grit to poetic truth and back.

Under Barron’s practiced hand (he led the Road’s earlier staging of the play, in the 2013 Summer Playwrights Festival), this troupe shows Broken Fences at its best — topical yet human, fast-moving yet deep, a lively piece of theatre that’s also something to reckon with. Go. You’ll be glad you did.

A (Long) Note on Race, Sex & Writing:
Raisin in the Sun was written by a black woman, Lorraine Hansberry. Broken Fences and Clybourne Park were  both written by white men.

Hansberry tells the story of a black family’s crisis-cum-opportunity, a topic she knew well. In 1937, her parents bought a house in a white Chicago suburb, and she lived through the bullying and violence that ensued.

Simoncic has said (in a 2009 interview) that Broken Fences arose from his concerns as a new parent thinking about where to raise his children. He added that “being a man” was an issue he had lived and also wanted to explore.  Both of these have indeed shaped the play.

We begin with Czar (whose name is a bit much — but Hansberry named a young black woman “Beneatha”), and it seems he will be the central character. To Simoncic’s credit, he is not: Hoody soon takes just as much space and power, if not more (it is, after all, his turf).

Each of the four main characters — Czar, Hoody, April, D — has a monolog that lets us into their experience and establishes their perspective. But the play focuses on struggle of the two men to deal with the forces descending upon them, and with their own choices.

Czar and Hoody are patriarchal men; they are the decision-makers. April and D must exert their influence carefully, suggesting and cajoling more often than stating or arguing. (The same imbalance exists between Spence and Barb, though he is overmatched.)

Broken Fences does not call this patriarchalism into question.

Simoncic does a better job at working against racism, creating both black and white perspectives. I should say he seems to — since all my knowledge of black Americans’ experience is secondhand. In Broken Fences, I feel the fated collision of two whole worlds, each with its own integrity, and the almost futile attempt of the individuals in those worlds to cope with the collision, and with each other.

Broken Fences is full of humor, but it’s a tragedy. Not in the classical sense, that someone’s tragic flaw brings them down, but in the modern sense — that the fates are bigger and stronger than we are, and with them in control, our personal hopes and dreams will not be realized. This modern tragedy, by making us care about its people, lets us feel its force.
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Broken Fences, by Steven Simoncic, directed by Andre Barron.
Presented by The Road Theatre Company, at NoHo Senior Arts Colony,  10747 W. Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00, through April 3.

Tickets: <www.roadtheatre.org>