Beyond the ‘Fences,’ a world of color

Broad shoulders, back straightened with a commanding presence, lead actor for the upcoming production of “Fences” Lester Purry stepped off the stage to guide actors and non-actors alike through the history of stereotypes and the business of acting.

The Performing Arts Department organized the August Wilson Workshop for Wednesday, Nov. 16 in the Dow Arena Theatre between 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. The free event is open to members throughout the campus and is thematically aligned with “Fences,” according to the director and instructor of theater arts Valorie Grear.

“This workshop has been about introducing the work of August Wilson to people, students and part of our audience community that doesn’t know his work,” Grear said.

Grear, acquainted with the work of Wilson, chose “Fences” while selecting a play for a dramatic literature class. Everybody in the play loved it and was deeply affected by it because of the issues identified in the play, which dealt with father-son relationships, among other universal themes, she said.

Purry, who will be playing the character Troy, has 30 years of experience and has appeared in seven out of 10 plays featured in the “The Century Cycle” by Wilson.

“The thing about Wilson’s play is that the history that I feel is past, present and future,” Purry said.  “It’s so poignant. You think about a play like “Fences” where Troy is so afraid of his son being hurt in the world because of racism or because of circumstances not being the way he thinks they should be, and in some ways, we are still facing that.”

The workshop will feature the film documentary and a discussion of “Ethnic Notions” by Marlon Rigg.

Participants will take a disturbing voyage through American history, tracing the deep-rooted stereotypes, which have fueled anti-Black prejudices and made their way onto stage, radio, TV and film, according to the flyer advertising the event.

“That’s what so important about the film that we are going to show in the workshop, ‘Ethnic Notions.’ August has always dealt with stereotypes and I would say that in every single play he does because he is interested in taking away the power of negativity of it,” Purry said.  

After the documentary, there will be Q&A with a focus on Wilson’s work as well providing practical acting tips.  

“The thing about the business side of theater is its sort of individualized and tailored because I couldn’t give a young Asian women the same advice I’d give to a young white guy,” Purry said.

Purry explained how one of the things he’ll be talking about is the different websites where you can self-submit yourself and things such as specific physical attributes or abilities that agents are looking for.

“It’s changed so rapidly. You used to have to mail your headshot and resume,” Purry said. “I had to have everything glued. I glued my resume to the back of my picture, put it in with a cover letter and mailed it all. Then I found out that if you seal it they won’t open it.”

Students enrolled in a theater course are encouraged to attend the workshop to help them grasp a better understanding of the production of “Fences” in the beginning of December.  

“A professor announced it, made a big deal to us that we had to watch the play,” Steven Tan, a film major at Pierce, said. “I was told that when watching a play we have to learn from that to get a better understanding of life. Try to pick out key parts from the play and how that betters us.”

To end the workshop, Grear explained how there will be an actor participation activity. Participants will be doing cold call readings of Wilson’s work.  

However, if anyone would like to get the lines in advanced, Grear encourages students to email her at  

“What Valorie does is what I think everybody should do, is to sit down and tell the human story.  Every person has experienced pain, every person has experienced rejection, experienced oppression.  Everybody. Just tell that story and it comes out.”