Again, the playwright’s introduction is pure poetry. Here is the 1st paragraph in stanza form (2nd and 3rd paragraphs to follow):
Near the turn of the century,
the destitute of Europe
sprang on the city
with tenacious claws
and an honest and solid dream.
The city devoured them.
They swelled its belly until it burst
into a thousand furnaces and sewing machines,
a thousand butcher shops and bakers’ ovens,
a thousand churches and hospitals
and funeral parlors and money lenders.
The city grew.
It nourished itself
and offered each man a partnership
limited only by his talent,
his guile and his willingness
and capacity for hard work.
For the immigrants of Europe,
a dream dared and won true.
These poem-intros bring to my mind the Greek chorus of ancient Greek drama, the collective voice that comments on the dramatic action (we will see more of this in future plays)…
The epigraph of the play is from Wilson’s original poetry:
“When the sins of our fathers visit us
We do not have to play host.
We can banish them with forgiveness
As God, in His Largeness and Laws.”
The play opens with a dialogue between two very old friends, Troy and Bono. It is a tried and true friendship and nothing is off the table for conversation. They discuss successes and shortfalls, routine stuff and special events, with a fluidity and continuity that makes the reader know there must be many stories wedged and buried between the lines.
We learn that the duo is a trio with the entry of Troy’s wife, Rose, an equal partner in the discussion, well most of the discussion. They chat on the back porch as it is a time, the 1950’s, before television AND air conditioning made the insides of our homes a more comfortable place. 90% of the rest of the play takes place outside, on the porch, and closer to nature, perhaps. At least farther from the confines of an enclosed space.
The first scene introduces us to Troy’s son, Cory, who wants to be an athlete like his Dad and definitely has the skills. But baseball, or at least his failure to get a shot at the pro league in his youth, has left a bitter taste in Troy’s mouth and he has every intention of discouraging his son from pursuing a similar dream. The rest of the play shows that conflict, father vs. son, and the possibility of dreams vs the reality of dreams forever deferred.
And there are other conflicts and tensions. Some get resolved, some don’t, some just muddle along. There is a growing and gnawing disappointment between Rose and Troy for each other. Troy’s oldest son, Lyons, is a static character throughout, in pursuit, by extension, of a hopeless dream. Troy’s new daughter, who arrives by an inopportune circumstance, perhaps, shows flashes of optimism for the future of the family.
A few points for further discussion:
1. Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson in juxtaposition. Was Babe the white Josh or was Josh the black Babe? Also mention of Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, and George Selkirk (Babe Ruth’s successor, as perhaps Troy envisioned himself as Josh’s successor).
2. Interesting mention of “a pot to piss in.” We will see that theme further amplified in Gem of the Ocean.
3. The mixed metaphor of “wrassling (a poker game, a sexual innuendo)” vs.”wrestling with the devil” (see Ngugi wa Thiong’o) and three days and three nights (Jonah in the belly of the whale AND Jesus in the tomb.
4. Mention of Uncle Remus, a set of oral plantation fables and folktales “collected” and transcribed by Joel Chandler Harris, a white newspaper reporter.
5. Hertzberger, the furniture merchant was also the name of a prominent Dutch architect of the period, Herman Hertzberger.
6. Glickman, another furniture merchant, was the name of a prominent composer/ producer of film scores of the period, Mort Glickman.
7. Lyon’s lines about his music sound eerily similar to lines from ma Rainey “I need something that gonna help me get out of the bed in the morning. Make me feel like I belong in the world.”
8. Scene Two opens with the first mention of the word “fence.” See playlist below.
9. Fences Playlist:
10. And here is additional thought and analysis from the first sessions:
11. A short note on the libation ceremony in the film production of Fences. In the film adaptation and in some stage productions you may notice Troy or Bono or Lyons pouring a few drops of whatever booze they are drinking onto the ground before taking a swallow. I have seen this most noticeably among Africans, pouring a few drops of a beverage on the ground before drinking as a tribute of sorts to the ancestors who have passed on. This tribute/ceremony does not occur in the Wilson script. I only thought about it while we discussed Buddy Bolden’s alcoholism in Seven Guitars. I found something about it here.