Some friends and I saw August William’s Fences last night (the same production seen by Strange Quark and Heather). It’s a great play, of course, and the production – actors, set, lighting — was impressive.
Fences is part of Wilson’s 10-play “Pittsburgh cycle,” about Blacks in America in the 20th century. Each play takes place in a different decade of the 20th century, all but one in the same black neighborhood in Pittsburgh; some characters in plays set late in the cycle are descendants of characters from earlier in the cycle. I’ve been fantasizing about seeing the entire Pittsburgh cycle, in order.1
Fences, despite some humor and despite stunning, lyrical dialog, is as grim a play as I’ve ever seen; one character has some hope in act 1, but it’s crushed by the start of act 2 and very little new hope comes to replace it. Any great play will have multiple interpretations, but for me Fences is about how racism’s scars do not go away quickly, if at all.
The main character of Fences, Troy Maxson, was born to be a baseball legend, like Babe Ruth or Willie Mayes. But major league baseball was exclusively white during Troy’s heyday, and Troy spent his pro ball years as the second-best slugger in the negro leagues, after Josh Gibson.2
Fences begins a decade after Jackie Robinson was the first Black player in major league baseball. But that can’t heal Troy’s scars. Troy, now in his fifties, has long retired from baseball; he eeks out a living for himself and his family as a garbage man, and nurses his well-earned bitterness. His life has been warped by white racism, and in turn Troy is helpless to keep himself from warping his son’s life. As Susan Koprince3 writes:
Bitter about his own exclusion from major-league baseball, Troy is resistant when Cory wants to attend college on a football scholarship, telling his son that black athletes have to be twice as talented to make the team and that “the white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway.” [...]
Troy’s efforts to prevent his son from playing football can be viewed as a form of what Harry J. Elam, Jr., calls “racial madness”–a term that suggests that social and political forces can impact the black psyche and that decades of oppression can induce a collective psychosis. In Fences this racial madness is illustrated most vividly in the character of Troy’s mentally handicapped brother, Gabriel, but it is also revealed in Troy himself, who is so overwhelmed by bitterness that he destroys his son’s dream of a college education–a dream that most fathers would happily support. Instead, Troy instructs Cory to stick with his job at the A & P or learn a trade like carpentry or auto mechanics: “That way you have something can’t nobody take away from you.”
There is a certain method, however, to Troy’s madness; for why should he expect college football (another white power structure) to treat his son any better than major-league baseball treated him? Why should he believe, in 1957, that times have really changed for black men? Anxious for Cory to find economic security, and, more importantly, self-respect, Troy exclaims to [his wife] Rose, “I don’t want him to be like me! I want him to move as far away from my life as he can get.”
Fences is also a story about how masculinity, and the overlap between masculinity and racism, can warp people. Troy is consumed by his own need to “be a man,” and if at all possible to be the biggest man. He tells extravagant stories in which he wrestles Death to a standstill; his best friend falls comfortably into what can only be described as a sidekick role; his wife describes him as filling a house merely by walking into it.4
Nevertheless, Troy’s principle route to establishing and maintaining his manhood — a legendary career as a baseball slugger — was closed off to him by racism. His second route to manhood, being a dutiful husband and provider, is something he’s second-rate at; he gets by hauling white people’s garbage, but he was only able to buy a house by taking, or perhaps stealing, money from his mentally disabled brother. And Troy’s third route to manhood — a long-time adulterous relationship — ends up destroying his claim to being a good husband and father.
And the clash between Troy and his younger son Cory is all about masculinity, at least in this production. Troy is constantly forcing Cory to back down, to acknowledge Troy’s primacy as the man of the family; Troy is sometimes so in Cory’s face it’s a wonder their noses don’t hit. Troy destroys Cory’s chances for college not just out of a misguided need to protect Cory, but also out of a masculine need to dominate Cory. At the same time, Troy is trying to be a good father by teaching Cory to be a man — which, for Troy, means being hard and surrounded by emotional fences, even when they destroy his relationships with everyone around him. (When Cory, in emotional anguish, asks his father why he (Troy) doesn’t like him (Cory), Troy responds by mocking Cory’s desire to be liked).
Cory, in turn, grows into a young man itching to challenge his father, but emotionally stiff and withdrawn; not coincidentally, Cory chooses what may be the most traditionally masculine career imaginable by joining the Marines.
As frequently happens, I don’t have a good ending to this blog post. But it’s curious to me that — as I’ve been reading essays and reviews of Fences yesterday and today — I haven’t seen anyone talking about the obsession with, and the warping effects of, masculinity in Fences. (Lots of stuff about racism, virtually nothing about masculinity).
Anyhow, great play. See it if you get a chance.
Edited to add: But does Fences pass the Mo Movie Measure?
It does, but only barely; there are only two female characters that appear, and one — the 8-year-old daughter of Troy — appears only in one scene at the play’s end. During that scene, Rose, Troy’s wife, tells the daughter to put on her good shoes, and that’s the total extent of two female characters talking to each other in this play.
To be sure, Rose is an amazing character: strong, eloquent, dignified and believable. I suspect that most audience members, if asked who their favorite character is, would say “Rose.” Nonetheless, Fences is on the whole an extremely male-centric play.
- In my fantasy world, not only does some theatre company in extremely-white Portland miraculously choose to stage 10 August Wilson plays, but they price tickets so low that I can afford to see ten shows in a row. Also, I own a pony. [↩]
- August Wilson may have modelled Troy partly after Josh Gibson, who lived and died in Pittsburgh. Gibson, who once hit 69 home runs in a single season, whose 1942 batting average (in the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League) of .480 remains the record in that league, and who is believed to be the only player to ever hit a fair ball out of Yankee stadium, would be as legendary as Babe Ruth if he had been allowed into the major leagues. [↩]
- “Baseball as history and myth in August Wilson’s Fences,” African American Review, Summer, 2006. [↩]
- On Broadway, Troy was originally played by James Earl Jones. That’s how big the character is supposed to be, and I don’t just mean physically. [↩]