There is a lot to unpack in all these plays and Fences is no exception.
Late with this week’s blog post. I guess it took some time to process the play, the text I read twice, and the film adaptation we watched on TV. I want to begin by highlighting an August Wilson quote from Samuel Freedman’s foreword to my edition of Fences that I call “found poetry”:
"I found myself trying to figure out the intent of these lives around me. Trying to uncover the nobility and the dignity I might not have seen. Part of the reason I wrote Fences was to illuminate that generation, which shielded its children from all the indignities they went through.
I have to confess that until our group discussion laid it out on the table with multiple inputs, I hadn’t really plumbed the depths of the use of the play’s title “Fences” as a metaphor. That is what I’d like to address in this week’s post. But first, let’s recapitulate the pre-class notes:
- Market forces that influenced the play: advisors recommended a play with a nuclear family, something “more accessible” than the previous plays.
- Wilson’s insistence that the film adaptation have a black director was not well received by the entertainment industry.
- Who is the central protagonist in Fences? Is it Troy Maxsom, a “big man” who “fills all the empty spaces” in the lives of everybody around him? Or is it Rose, the constant, steadying influence, the glue that holds everything together and nudges the men around her into true manhood? Or maybe Cory, the future, the promise, the unflawed character?
- The name of the play is Fences, but there are only occasional mentions of fences, or even of a single fence. Is the fence something central or merely incidental to the play? A metaphor?
- What about Bono? He gets better as the play progresses, better at dominoes, better at being a husband to Lucille, better at being a friend to Troy and Rose. He progresses through the timeline of the play. His character develops.
- This week we introduce Freytag’s Pyramid. A useful way to unpack and track the development of the play’s plot.
- What is the play’s introduction? Does the Troy-Bono dialogue (with Rose entering part way through the conversation) at the beginning of Act 1 effectively set the scene for the entire play?
- Rising action: Cory’s football hopes counterposed with Troy’s laments about his failed baseball career. Troy’s efforts to get a promotion to driver at work. Troy talks about past successful struggles with Death.
- Climax: Troy’s announcement that Alberta is pregnant, followed by a heated discussion with Rose and Cory’s entrance and defense of Rose in what he perceives to be his father’s physical attack. Strike 2.
- The Falling Action: Gabe gets arrested and institutionalized. Alberta dies in childbirth. We never see Alberta, but she is always lurking behind the scenes. Troy comes to grips with his new responsibility.
- Resolution: Rose adopts Alberta’s daughter, Raynell. Cory leaves home and joins the Marines. Troy dies. Lyons goes to jail but returns for the funeral. Cory also returns home for Troy’s funeral. Bono organizes the pall bearers.
But back to the Fences metaphor. Bono says early in Act 2, “Some people build fences to keep people out . . . and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to you all. She loves you.” There is only one fence being built in the play, but the play has many fences, hence the plurality of the title. Troy and Bono met in prison, where they were “fenced” in, so to speak, in a hyper-controlled environment with rigid boundaries. That controlled space is also the place that gave Troy the discipline to learn the game of baseball, a sport with an infield for base running and an outfield generally enclosed and contained by a fence. Batting the ball “over the fence” is considered a score, a home run.
Troy considers his own marriage a type of prison to which he has been sentenced, a prison bounded by a fence, but at the end of an 18-year sentence, he wants freedom from “the same place’ where he has been standing still. He says towards the end of Act 2 Scent 1, “Then I saw that girl . . . she firmed up my backbone. And I got to thinking that if I tried . . . I just might be able to steal second. Do you understand, after eighteen years I wanted to steal second. [. . . .] I stood on first base for eighteen years and I thought. . . well, goddamn it . . . go on for it.”
On the other hand, and extending the metaphor, “fencing” is the crime of buying and reselling stolen merchandise. The person who knowingly buys stolen goods in order to resell them is known as a “fence.” Troy, using baseball imagery, refers in a conversation with Rose to his adultery with Alberta as “stealing second base.” Troy himself, in this sense, is the “fence” who purchased stolen property (Alberta’s affection and attention) and resells it as his own image of himself.
We can debate about whether Troy was a sympathetic or a despicable character. Professor Shannon points out in her book, The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, that Troy “reverses a stereotype found in portrayals of the black family: the conspicuously absent father,” but that he is also an “amalgam of blues personalities,” i.e., a railroad man in his infidelity, a bluesman who is depressed and finally, “womanless,” and a trickster (you pick the poison). You gotta read Professor Shannon’s book.
Last but not least, Riley Temple, in his book, Queen Ester’s Children Redeemed, included Troy Maxson in a reference to the Wilson Warriors, characters who “take a journey – a pilgrimage of redemption to find and to reconstitute who they might have been, and what they have become. . . . These men and women are warriors in fact, and not merely in spirit (but certainly in that as well), and have that Warrior courage. They make mistakes. Bad mistakes. They pay the price for them. Yet, they are not victims. They are fighters.” Temple includes in that list of warriors, from plays we have already completed, Boomer from Jitney and Levee from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Another book you gotta read!
Well, I’ll stop here because time is passing, the weekend is approaching, and play #4, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, awaits my discover.
postscript. The 1950’s.
In 1954, in a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state laws segregating public schools for African-American and white children was unconstitutional. The case, known as Brown v. Board of Education overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, which was handed down 58 years earlier.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling was a landmark case that cemented the inspiration for the Civil Rights Movement.
The case was fought through the legal arm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which had been fighting civil rights battles since the 1930s.
Congress establishes the Civil Rights Act of 1957. This is the first legislative act protecting the rights of African-Americans since the Reconstruction period by establishing the Civil Rights section of the Justice Department. Federal prosecutors are now able to get court injunctions against those who interfere with the right to vote. Under this act, the Federal Civil Rights Commission is also established.
Dorothy Irene Height is elected president of the National Council of Negro Women. Height holds this position for 41 years.
Federal troops are sent to Little Rock, Ark by Dwight Eisenhower to enforce the desegregation of Central High School. The troops are also instructed to protect nine African-American students who are enrolled in the school and remain for the entire academic year.
The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) was established in Birmingham.
Perry H. Young becomes the first African-American pilot of a commercial passenger airline.