Saturday, April 9, 2016

BOOKS! (Fences)

Actor Wendell Pierce put me on to August Wilson's work in his autobiography The Wind in the Reeds, which I read last summer. He wrote so highly of Wilson's plays and how they influenced Broadway, African-American art, and his own understanding of his identity and artistry, that I just had to read for myself. I've since been able to acquire four of the ten plays in August Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle" (or "Century Cycle") and first up for me is Fences, which won him a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony award.

Fences by August Wilson

This two-act play is set in the late 1950s in the backyard of the Maxson home in Pittsburgh, PA. The yard and back porch form the stage for a small ensemble of seven characters, a stage that's initially accented by the makings of an unfinished fence. Troy Maxson is the owner of the house and the head of the blended family that calls it home base. He had aspirations of becoming a major league baseball player during his tumultuous youth, but now he works as a trash collector. Jim Bono, or simply "Bono", is Troy's best friend who often comes over to shoot the breeze with him. Rose is Troy's second wife, and the mother of his teenage second son, Cory. Lyons is Troy's 30-something first child from a previous marriage, an aspiring musician to whom Troy often lends money out of guilt for not having helped raise him. Gabriel is Troy's younger brother who has persisting psychological damage as the result of a head injury sustained during WWII. And I'll let the seventh member of the cast be a surprise.

Troy is the center of attention in this play, since all the other characters either rely on him to survive or are significantly influenced by his actions. He is also the one who initiated and keeps stalling on the fence-building project. My first thought upon reading the first few pages of Troy's dialogue, and the thought that accompanied me throughout my reading of the play, was that Troy Maxson is a real James Evans, Sr. type of person (see the 1970s CBS black sitcom 'Good Times'). Intelligent, short-tempered, Mr. Man, insecurity expressed through aggression, family man, a wealth of talent stifled by bad timing and limited opportunity due to his age, race, and background. Perilously hard working, because it's all he knows how to do and he doesn't have the option not to be. Got beef with everyone, including Death. Doesn't want his kids to turn out like him but also doesn't want them to be too much better than him. Shows his love through providing for his family, and in his house, his wife and kids must show love and loyalty in return by doing whatever he says. In many ways, Troy Maxson and James Evans are almost the same person, just set 20 years apart and in separate northern cities.

Despite his fierce sense of responsibility, Troy seems to view his family more as an unshirkable duty than as a part of his real self. He even suggests that settling down was just something he did to be on the straight and narrow, stay out of trouble, and feel normal. But with all the security that a normal or respectable life is supposed to provide, something is missing. Which is part of the reason why he strays. While he doesn't take his familial duties lightly, he's so burdened by financial woes, his past failures, and the expectations that he faces at home, that he doesn't feel like he can be himself amongst his family. He doesn't feel like a man, doesn't feel alive, can't laugh, can't relax... except when he's spending time with a certain secret someone. Sounds like a pretty common explanation for infidelity, doesn't it? The revelation of all of Troy's secrets upsets the family dynamic and sullies his image in the eyes of those closest to him. While he agonizes over his identity as a man, everyone else is forced to articulate who they are in relation to the decisions that he's made.

Baseball references and metaphors appear frequently in Fences, as Troy uses the sport to understand his life and conceptualize what it means to fight, take chances, and make the best of what life hands you. And who could ignore the titular metaphor, the fence whose completion has been stalled for years until the second half of the play. This fence serves dual purposes as both a defense mechanism (shutting the world and its meddling forces out) and a fixture of desperation (holding people in; keeping the family together and protecting the little that it can lay claim to). In a word, amidst internal drama the Maxsons are a black urban family making slow and haggard strides in a country that's entering an era of earth-shattering change. Though Fences is short, it hits hard, and makes for a humbling introduction to the legacy of August Wilson. Give it a read!

Favorite quote:
"I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams... and I buried them inside you. I planted a seed and watched and prayed over it. I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn't take me no eighteen years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn't never gonna bloom... I owed you everything I had. Every part of me I could find to give you. And upstairs in that room... with the darkness falling in on me... I gave everything I had to try and erase the doubt that you wasn't the finest man in the world" (71).

No comments:

Post a Comment