Reviewed by Jeff Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

The Altarena Playhouse is currently presenting August Wilson’s FENCES as directed by Gene Kahane.

Set in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 1957, FENCES is at once a metaphor, a window and a mirror for where we were and where we are in our progress toward a racially just society.

Given the span of 55 years between the setting of the play and when it is being performed, one can take note of both the progress and lack of progress toward the goal of racial equality.

When it comes to race in America, what should seem “so 1957” doesn’t.

Hoop skirts, girls with pony tails on roller skates serving patrons at drive-in root beer stands, fins on the rear the fenders of cars, hoola-hoops and duck tail haircuts all seem dated: “so 1957;” but the problems that plagued and arrested the African-American community in 1957, unfortunately, do not seem as dated.

Director Gene Kahane, who mostly directs high school theatre, making occasional off campus forays into community theater, has been nominated for several San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics’ awards; his artistry is conspicuously apparent in this current opus.

Gene does not believe in Procrustean fits, he directs with a suggestive voice; not a megaphone; his vision of a show is projected onto swirling vapors not cast in stone.

Given that this is an African-American play with an all African-American cast, his touch was judiciously even more restrained: barely palpable; he listened more than he spoke and the vision of the cast became the vision of the director; he served mostly as the eyes and ears of the cast; reporting to the cast what the audience would ultimately see and hear.

Leontyne Mbele-Mbong provides the center of gravity for this show; combining superb acting with a noble heroic grace as Rose: a woman who celebrates life and love as much as she vulnerably lives life and loves.

Dorian Lockett as Bono was, to many in the audience, too real to be acting; the audience had to be reminded that MR Lockett, although he was so convincingly deep into his character, was, after all, faithfully following the August Wilson script.

MR Lockett proved the stage adage: “when acting does not seem like acting, that’s acting.”

Avondina Wills courageously took on the most strenuous role of Lyons: a man of larger than life proportions, a bundle of wrestling contradictions and a big generous erring heart.

Once Jaelyn Cooper stepped onto stage the show needed no Klieg lights; this bright little supernova from Wood Middle School was absolutely dazzling on stage; she was the apotheosis of hope, clarity and unfettered potential as the delightful Raynell.

While Rita Hayworth was discovered at Drug Store in Hollywood, Jaelyn Cooper was discovered, properly chaperoned, at Alameda’s favorite west end bistro, Cooper’s 1400.

February is African American History month; whether you are out for exceptional entertainment and quality theatre, or for a slice of African-Americana alla 1957, this show is not to be missed.

While many community theaters cautiously hunker down to time worn reheats of successful Broadway hits, it is commendable that Fred Chacon and Gene Kahane take the risk and effort to bring Alameda quality theatre with substance.

For an unforgettable play, performance and evening, call the Altarena box office at 510-523-1553 or visit www.altarena.org.