5/13/2013 8:42 PM
Fences, the sixth in the ten play cycle by August Wilson, takes place in 1957, two years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott began, ten years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line that by so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” kept African-American players out of the major leagues (and two years before the Red Sox became the last team to include a black player on their team), six years before the March on Washington, seven and eight years before the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. In other words, it takes place during the early years of a slow, long over-due change. For Troy Maxson, a garbage man who according to his friend had only two ballplayers better than him, Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson, the change is not just over-due but too late. He’s gruff and bitter about his own denied opportunities. “There ought not never have been no time called too early.”
Troy is supported by a devoted wife, Rose, and a great friend, Bono, but he’s struggling with the times, challenging his bosses about the fact that there are no Negro drivers among the city’s garbage men, trying to raise his sons his way while they push for their own way, and wrestling with temptations related to love and identity. Fences is one of Wilson’s best plays and has the street poetry dialogue, the blend of folk wisdom and superstition, of the personal and societal, and the ever presents shadows of history and race that are characteristic of his work. While times are changing, to what degree they are changing and the cost of the changing is far from clear in 1957. Selma and Birmingham and the Mississippi Summer are yet to come; Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King’s assassinations are six, eight and eleven years away. As with its beginning, segregation will be supported by violent acts of terrorism through its end. So Troy’s bitterness is earned, his courage in advocating for equality of opportunity in the workplace is real and his suspicion of the permanence of any incremental change is not just reluctance to adjust. His refusal to let his son Corey talk to a college recruiter about a football scholarship is in fact a swamp of motivations: fear, jealousy, suspicion. “The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway. You go on and get your book learning so you can work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something, get you a trade….You go on and learn how to put your hands to some good use. Besides hauling people’s garbage.” Equally complex and all too human are the personal battles Troy fights. Wilson turns the mundane into something epic; something personal into the universal.
Fences is a play about family, responsibility, love, friendship, and respect. The relationships between Rose and Troy, between Troy and his brother Gabriel, whose brain was damaged in World War II, between Troy and Corey, and between Troy and Bono are each richly complex and compelling. It is a drama, not a tragedy. It has moments of uplift and of sorrow. Troy is a human figure, strong, mostly decent and upright, though not always, and flawed. He is a less melodramactic, less hysterical Lear but a more human and deserving one. (There are no bodies strewn around the stage but lives are.) The secondary characters are full-bodied and with the efficiency of Hemingway. Wilson lets a bit of dialogue, an exchange that has the roots of pattern in it, stand not just for the moment but for the history and character of those involved. He is a master at getting us recognize much in little. Fences is a bittersweet drama, compassionate, moving, and thoughtful