I came across my copy of Fences at one of those “little free library” stands, down the street. As I was reading it I suddenly realized that I saw this play, about fifteen years ago, at the Penumbra Theater in Saint Paul. I don’t remember a lot about the play; a bit of the set, the baseball hanging down on a rope, the partially built fence and the porch, and I think Lou Bellamy was playing the lead character, Troy Maxson. It’s a sad story, and I remember that, leaving the play, the ending left me unsatisfied. Reading the play left me with a similar feeling.
The story is set in the 1950’s and is essentially a family drama, spinning around Troy Maxson and his relationships with his wife and sons, brother and friends. Troy is a hard man who is struggling to provide for his family. He works as a trash collector. He used to play baseball, and he was good, powerful, but by the time the color-line had been broken he was too old to make it to the big leagues. He left home young – after being beaten in a fight by his father – came north to the city to find work, found none, took to stealing, and wound up in prison for killing a man. Since his release he’s been working and staying on the straight and narrow. He is married to Rose, works his job, spends some time with his friend Bono, and tries to help his brother Gabriel, who was injured in the war, stay provided for and out of the mental institution. He has two sons, the older one on his own, a musician, who borrows occasional money and lives largely off his own wife. His younger son, Cory, is still in school, and works at a grocery store, but is also an athlete, and has a chance to go to college on a football scholarship.
Troy is a man with a deep divide. On one hand, he talks of responsibility, of providing for his loved ones, the duty he has to his family and how he provides for them and lives up to this duty. However his sense of duty to his family has supplanted, it seems, to a great extent, the affection and love that should be there. And while he speaks of duty and responsibility, he is not entirely trustworthy. He talks a good game, but he has a child with another woman during the course of the play, a deep betrayal of his wife Rose, and he sabotages his younger son Cory’s chance to go to college on a football scholarship. Troy is a charismatic and powerful character, perhaps even likable. But his rock-hard sense of duty destroys his relationships with his loved ones, and his death at the end of the play seems like a convenient way of wrapping up the story, rather than a fulfillment of the premise, the story-line.
Perhaps I just wanted Maxson to change? He doesn’t change. Instead he dies and the family carries on, giving him I think more honor than I think is his due. And maybe this is where my understanding of the play is lacking, as August Wilson writes this play of the black experience in America in the 1950s. One might see Troy as an archtype representing the black experience in the northern cities, post-war. But I’m reluctant or unable to look at it that way — I see it as a intimate portrayal of relationships and one man’s efforts – because I can see that Troy Maxson is trying desperately, trying to succeed, to be true to himself and to love his family – and his ultimate failure.
The play is excellent, it’s not long, the story moves along, the writing is vibrant and all the characters come alive. I suppose Maxson is a tragically flawed character, and the play is very good at illuminating these flaws, leaving it to the audience to see the tragedy of this. I guess I wanted more than that, though. I guess I wanted redemption of some sort, and I don’t feel like there was any.
I also wanted more baseball, of course. The play makes a few references to it, but doesn’t use baseball as much as it might, I thought. Funny that a play called Fences, with the image of a man holding a baseball bat on the cover, seems to lack baseball. But the central image of the fence in the play is the fence around the yard that Troy is building throughout the play, not the fence that the home run goes over. From different perspectives, Maxson’s fence is either supposed to keep the world out, or to keep loved-ones in. Troy of course has his own internal fences, and he maintains them at all costs. On the other side of Troy’s internal fence is vulnerability and self-doubt; his fence is high and does not fall.