Fences: My Favorite Play Becomes My Favorite Movie

If you haven’t seen Fences yet, run to the theatre.

Oscar Worthy! On so many levels. This was my first Broadway play with Billy Dee Williams playing Troy Maxon! Denzel Washington captured the role perfectly in the movie along with Viola Davis as Rose. Fences is playwright August Wilson’s amazing tome about an inner city Pittsburgh family in the 1950s. Troy Maxon, a former Negro League baseball player, is who the story revolves around. All the characters in the play have a central conflict with Troy in some way. It’s an amazing story and Washington does an excellent job directing the action on the big screen.

As a baseball fan, the comparison of Troy to Babe Ruth (who was widely regarded as the most famous Major Leaguer) or Josh Gibson (who was clearly the best player in the Negro Leagues and who many regard as someone who could have rivaled Ruth’s celebrity) is one of the many conflicts that Troy deals with in the story. A great ballplayer who was in his prime before Jackie Robinson and the integration of the Major Leagues. Here’s a great line of dialogue:

rose: Cory done went and got recruited by a college football team.
troy: I told that boy about that football stuff. The white man ain’t gonna let him get nowhere with that football. I told him when he first come to me with it. Now you come telling me he done went and got more tied up in it. He ought to go and get recruited in how to fix cars or something where he can make a living.
rose: He ain’t talking about making no living playing football. It’s just something the boys in school do. They gonna send a recruiter by to talk to you. He’ll tell you he ain’t talking about making no living playing football. It’s a honor to be recruited.
troy: It ain’t gonna get him nowhere. Bono’ll tell you that.
bono: If he be like you in the sports…he’s gonna be all right. Ain’t but two men ever played baseball as good as you. That’s Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson. Them’s the only two men ever hit more home runs than you.
troy: What it ever get me? Ain’t got a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of.
rose: Times have changed since you was playing baseball, Troy. That was before the war. Times have changed a lot since then.
troy: How in hell they done changed?
rose: They got lots of colored boys playing ball now. Baseball and football.
bono: You right about that, Rose. Times have changed, Troy. You just come along too early.
troy: There ought not never have been no time called too early! Now you take that fellow…what’s that fellow they had playing right field for the Yankees back then? You know who I’m talking about, Bono. Used to play right field for the Yankees.
rose: Selkirk?
troy: Selkirk! That’s it! Man batting .269, understand? .269. What kind of sense that make? I was hitting .432 with thirty-seven home runs! Man batting .269 and playing right field for the Yankees! I saw Josh Gibson’s daughter yesterday. She walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet. Now I bet you Selkirk’s daughter ain’t walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet! I bet you that!
rose: They got a lot of colored baseball players now. Jackie Robinson was the first. Folks had to wait for Jackie Robinson.
troy: I done seen a hundred niggers play baseball better than Jackie Robinson. Hell, I know some teams Jackie Robinson couldn’t even make! What you talking about Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson wasn’t nobody. I’m talking about if you could play ball then they ought to have let you play. Don’t care what color you were. Come telling me I come along too early. If you could play…then they ought to have let you play.

Our shameful past, where black athletes were not given a chance to play on the world’s biggest stage, reflected in the lost dreams of one man is simply one amazing tale that Wilson tells.

Run, don’t walk. And when they are doling out Oscars, they might just want to hand a few out to this cast. Washington and Viola are amazing. JOvan Adepo does an amazing job as the son, Cory, who comes of age in front of our eyes. Stephen McKinley Henderson plays Troy’s best friend Bono with an ease unlike any I have seen before with gentleness. But I think the stage was stolen by Mykelti Williamson who plays Gabe, Troy’s brother who was injured in the war and now suffers from mental illness after he was wounded and lives with a metal plate in his head.

Check him out:

And while we’re at it. I came across a very interesting article on possible inspirations for Troy Maxon. Here’s just one thought—but a significant one.

We All Build Fences

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.