Fences, the gripping play by August Wilson was the first Broadway Play that I had ever seen. Being the son of lower middle class Irish immigrant stock, a trip to NYC from Yonkers (just about 10 miles north) for my family was the equivalent of going to New Delhi. It was a big deal and therefore we never travelled out of Yonkers when I was a child. So my first Broadway experience wasn’t until I was in 10th or 11th grade and Billy Dee Williams played Troy Maxon, Wilson’s protagonist who at times also seemed like his own antagonist. Fr. Jim Martin, S.J. caught the latest revival, this one starring Denzel Washington as Troy and has many kind things to say about the play in America and has several insightful points that I haven’t thought about in years.
“Fences” could be a case study out of The Moynihan Report, Senator Patrick Moynihan’s analysis of the status of the underclass in this country in the 1960s, specifically African-Americans. By play’s end, Troy can count one child each by three different women. All his progeny are hovering in the sympathetic but sturdy orbit of the only woman he married, long-suffering Rose, herself the child of what might charitably be called an “extended” family. It’s not a new point, but Wilson makes it with force over and over, and nowhere more forcefully than in “Fences”: The women keep the home fires burning while the men are off finding themselves, often in contention with each other. That is a worthy quest, no doubt, but all too often it includes a component of sexual conquest alongside other emblems of validation. Wilson created many exemplars of both the rover and the homebody in his plays, but no couple so iconic as Troy and Rose. None of his loyal women is more tested than Rose, and none of his questing men crash down to earth with a greater thud than Troy.
While the play is based on a black family in the late 1950s, I resonated with the class struggles and the mentality of Troy as he fears his own son being able to become more than he is. I know in my own family that classic struggle exists. It’s a very Irish notion I fear, and I can almost hear my own mother’s words.
“Don’t think too much of yourself,” (If I showed the slightest bit of pride)
“Who do you think that you are?” (If I bragged about an achievement)
“We’re not THOSE kind of people!” (whenever I’d suggest going to NYC for theatre or even a ballgame)
At one point in the play, Troy suggests that his son, Cory, give up on sports and his quest for a college scholarship, both well within his grasp and tells him to make sure he keeps up his job at the A&P Supermarket chain. The line draws hysterics often at performances bordering on the ridiculous:
“You go and work yourself up in that A&P.”
When I heard that line I nearly cried. Wilson captured not only the fearful cry of unfulfilled black men, who came of age too early for the Civil Rights Movement, but also, of the working class parent too afraid to reach beyond their caste to hope for more, content with life as it is and seemingly befuddled by their child’s aspirations. Fr. Martin captures the idea perfectly:
This is Troy’s tragedy, and August Wilson’s unflinching point: A 53-year-old man might indeed still grapple for a sense of who he is and what he should be, even at the expense of those he loves. This is not only because he is a flawed male of the species, but because he still lives in a nation that does not recognize or validate his larger-than-life manhood. In part, you could say it is a matter of bad timing; Troy, after all, lives on the cusp of America’s huge civil rights breakthroughs. But even those triumphs have been interlaced with tragedy. When in 1968 Memphis garbage workers went on strike under the defiant slogan, “I Am a Man,” the nation’s greatest civil rights leader rushed to march with them. And we all know how Martin Luther King Jr.’s trip to Memphis ended.
Fences transcends race. It is the story of unfulfilled dreams in a world that doesn’t even care what your dreams are. We all build fences to protect ourselves. Many want to keep safe from the fear of what we might be missing, perhaps considering our lives a series of misfortunes. It’s that fear that often leads the affluent to also build gated communities, lest signs of poverty show itself in their neighborhood. Out of sight, out of mind.
But we also build fences to hurdle them. We might even literally sit on the fence in order to see that horizon that exists for us. And in that dreaming and noticing of desire we may be aided in making a decision on which way God may be calling us. I know I have had to knock over my share of fences throughout my life, but I have also been gifted by many open gates and many of those have been afforded to me, sadly, because of the color of my skin.
My wife and I just closed on our first “real” house. It’s a fenceless property right now but we’re considering building our own fence to allow our dog, Haze, to roam free in the backyard. But I sincerely like the symbol of the fenceless home. Where all are indeed welcome, where love can be given freely and where adventures and dreams are always just outside the door.