Lenny Henry is an entertainer that most people associate with stand-up, Comic Relief and promoting a certain budget hotel chain.
But in recent years he’s carved himself out a new career as a serious – very serious – actor. He’s overcome hostility from the establishment to make triumphant appearances in two Shakespeares and now he returns to Milton Keynes Theatre later this month in a powerful and hard-hitting story set against the background of racial prejudice in 1950s America.
August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences is the story of former baseball star Troy Maxon whose aspirations and dreams are destroyed because of the colour of his skin. He tries to protect his family from racism but, in the event, alienates his son who has ambitions of his own.
It’s very Arthur Miller/Tennessee Williams, dealing with big issues through one family’s eyes. But there’s also a lot of humour as this big bear of a man strives to make a life for himself in a society that’s in upheaval.
I met up with Fences director Paulette Randall and Lenny as the cast rehearsed in a Brixton community centre. The drama is now on a brief tour, coming to MKT on Monday, before going into the West End.
“This is a really rather beautiful and incredibly important play,” said Paulette. “By the end of it people leaving will, if nothing else, take away with them that they will never look at a big black man who might be in a dustman’s uniform in the same way.
“It’s a story about love, injustice, fear. Big themes.”
Lenny read the play more than a decade ago. “I saw that James Earl Jones had played Troy Maxon. I read it and really liked it. I thought: ‘What a complex play. I’d never do a play like that’. Like I used to say: ‘Humph, I’d never do a play like Othello.
“But then I did Othello and thought: ‘Wow, this is fantastic. What else is there to do because there aren’t many contemporary plays for a guy that looks like me.
“Troy is a typical 1950s African-American patriarch. He’s the king of the castle in his own house but when he’s outside he’s invisible because we’re in pre-Civil Rights America.
“Troy is very opinionated. He tells his boss he wants to be a driver but that’s a job only open to white men.
“As a character he’s up there with some of the great Arthur Miller characters. I love Miller and this story had the same effect on me which is why I wanted to do it.
“August Wilson has written a play that is probably inspired by Miller. Maxon is a towering colossus of a wreck of a man who has a moral code but he isn’t doing right by his wife and he ain’t doing right by his brother or son. He wants everyone to do as he says and not do as he does. There’s one rule for Troy and a different rule for everyone else.
“Troy’s not a touchy feely dad. He’s a difficult man. His wife Rose is a fantastic nurturing loving mum and women are going to love her. She’s just like your mum.
“August Wilson throws you a bit of a curve ball. In the first half an hour you really like Troy. He’s funny, charming, loves his wife etc but suddenly, as you peel more and more layers of the onion, you see that he’s much more complicated than we thought at first.
“He’s not some laughing and smiling black guy from the ‘50s. He’s actually very troubled.
“They often say the best characters are the villains. There’s no real challenge playing a nice bloke. I’m a nice bloke- so what? The challenge is to convince an audience that you are this multi-layered, complicated guy with problems
“This isn’t just a black play. It’s won all sorts of awards and it deals with universal themes. The 1950s was tough. People were going around and beating people up for no reason. We had riots. I knew people who carried iron bars in their cars for protection.
“In America it was far worse. People were being lynched. The KKK was in full effect. There were cross burnings. Anyone who remembers that time will resonate with this play.
“And if you’re a dad and you have a son who is cheeking you all the time, or a mum and you’re trying to hold a family together, or you’ve got a husband who is playing away from home, or a son who is at loggerheads with his dad, you will also resonate with this play.
“August Wilson is an incredibly astute observer of human relations.”
Fences runs at Milton Keynes Theatre from Monday. For tickets call the box office 0844 871 7652.