The cast of Short North Stage's "Fences" Credit: Courtesy of Ryan Allen.

The cast of Short North Stage’s “Fences” Credit: Courtesy of Ryan Allen.

August Wilson’s signature piece is set to kick off Short North Stage’s fall season.

“Fences” opens Thursday at 8 p.m. as part of the ongoing August Wilson Festival put on by the theater company, which started in January.

The August Wilson Festival celebrates the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. It is overseen by artistic director Mark Clayton Southers, who also directs Short North Stage’s production of Fences. Southers helped develop the idea of bringing the festival to Columbus.

“What I like about it is it shows the complexity of the black family,” Southers said. “But also it speaks on a universal level to people from all walks of life.”

Fences is part of Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Century Cycle” — 10 plays that focus on African-American life, each in a different decade of the twentieth century. It takes place in the ‘50s and follows Troy Maxson — a baseball player whose dreams were cut short because of racial discrimination — and his tense relationship with his family. The play itself has had an impact on Short North Stage actors Mujahid Abdul-Rashid and Rita Gregory, who portray Troy and his wife Rose.

“I’d been acting since I was five years old but seeing this show is what really made me want to get back into it,” Gregory said. “I fell in love with the piece. The musicality of those words and seeing a set that reminded me of my life as a child really drew me in.”  

Abdul-Rashid said Troy is his favorite character in all of theater.

“What makes (Troy) interesting is he’s a flawed character,” Abdul-Rashid said. “He’s a man who is trying to do the best he can in life with what he’s got, with the emotional hand he’s been dealt. It plays itself out in some loving and some harsh ways.”

The production also highlights up-and-coming talent in the area with stage manager Riley Hutchison and actor Taylor Moss, who plays Rose and Troy’s son, Cory. Both Hutchison and Moss graduated from the Ohio State Department of Theatre in 2015.  

Hutchison’s interest in theater began while he was in college as an assistant stage manager for Short North Stage. This experience inspired him to change his major from film.

“It gave me a good environment,” Hutchison said, describing the OSU theater department. “I got to learn about design, I took a few acting classes and the more you know about any one area of theater the better you can be at any other area or your speciality.”

Moss said OSU’s large campus was great for immersing himself in culture and meeting other people.

“What’s helped me more in my acting than anything is studying people and interacting in daily life,” said Moss. “You just meet so many people that influence you or give you another side of life.”

Rick Gore, executive producer of Short North Stage, describes the success of the festival as “transformative” and has inspired the company to seek out more plays with African-American cultural themes.

“Many of our patrons have not been exposed to Wilson before,” Gore said, “The sheer poetry of his language is incredible. So many comments from our regular patrons are ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before. This is the best play I’ve ever seen.’”

“Fences” is currently being adapted into a film directed by and starring Denzel Washington, who played Troy on Broadway in 2010. The August Wilson Festival will continue in October with a production of “The Piano Lesson” presented by Denison University. “Fences” will be performed at the Garden Theatre at 1187 N. High St. in the Short North Arts District. The show is set to run through Sept. 25. Tickets start at $28 including fees via the Short North Stage website.