Writer Peter Olschner
PHOTO BY MCKENNA MORIN

PETER OLSCHNER; Guest Writer; olschnpd@plu.edu

This October, junior theater student Josh Wallace is directing an all-black cast in an upcoming production of “Fences,” a 1985 play written by August Wilson. “Fences” tackles issues of race, oppressions, and community by telling the story of Troy, a 53-year-old head of household who struggles with providing for his family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Peter: Why did you choose “Fences”?

“Fences” is a brilliant show. There has been a lot of discussion surrounding the show given its recent film adaptation. When I was thinking about what show I wanted to direct, I thought that “Fences” would be a perfect fit. More and more ideas followed and I thought it was the perfect time. PLU is growing in its commitment to diversity, so I had the opportunity given the numbers of students of color attending PLU at this time.

Which came first: your interest in directing an all-black cast in a production at Pacific Lutheran University or your interest in directing “Fences”?

When I was a senior in high school, I participated in theater competitions. We did a show senior year titled “The African Company Presents Richard the Third.” It was the first all-black cast to win State in Texas, and it was one of my favorite shows I’ve ever worked on. I thought there was an opportunity to do something like that again at PLU. Why not do it again and provide an opportunity for others? “Fences” is the perfect for that.

Have you ever experienced race being a relevant factor in your treatment as an actor in various departments, particularly during casting? Have there been roles you’ve had interest in playing that you didn’t have access to based on your race?

You know, I told the production team and cast this when I was explaining the importance of the show: I’ve only played a black guy twice despite the fact that I’ve been in well over fifteen shows. Those two shows were the most exciting to perform in. Same goes for many black students around the world. They don’t get to be who they are, but rather they have to fit into a role that isn’t really them. Students of color should have the opportunity to play mostly roles of their race. There are innumerable shows out there to chose from, so there is no excuse to not pick shows that demonstrate cultural and racial diversity.

What has it been like directing an all-black cast in a play that deals with issues surrounding institutional racism?

In high school, my director wanted me to be in a leadership role. At that time my race was a big part of my identity, and the director wanted me to express my thoughts. We created a family through those experiences. We shared our views on race, on family, etc. We formed a bond, we opened up and we got to let out all sorts of emotions. With this show I wanted to recreate that sense of family. Providing a space for the cast to share their thoughts and feelings in regards to their race has been a priority.

It’s going well! They’re laughing, joking, but also taking it seriously at the appropriate times. It’s a beautiful thing to see. As far as leading the conversation on race, it’s not just something I’m doing, but something they’re all doing as well.

Did you face any difficulty in finding enough black actors to cast the show given the disparity between the number of black and non-black individuals in the theater department?

Not at all. In fact, it was heartwarming and overwhelming to see so many actors audition. Lots of students came out to showcase their talent. It felt incredible to have options, to be able to chose. Given how many students of color auditioned there’s really no excuse to not provide opportunities to those students.

Which black artists do you turn to for inspiration when you’re looking to refocus your motivation towards all that you wish to accomplish artistically?

I grew up watching Will Smith. I watched every single Will Smith movie and every episode of “Fresh Prince” a hundred times over. Denzel Washington became an inspirational figure to me as I got more into acting. Samuel L. Jackson is another artistic role model for me. He’s a funny guy, a great actor,and he can tell a story all by himself through his craft.

“Fences” is being performed on Oct. 6 and 7 at 7:30pm in the Karen Hille Phillips Center Black Box theater. ◼︎

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