Below is the Romare Bearden collage, Continuities, that inspired Troy’s character in Fences. He is bringing the baby home after her mother died in childbirth. Note the disproportionate size of the hands.
Fences always floods me with thoughts, as do all the plays in the cycle. Perhaps that is why leading the study group every Spring has become such a ritual for me. Fences is August Wilson’s “family play.” It and all the rest of the plays in the cycle depict the black family, Wilson’s chosen identity, although he had a white immigrant German father. An English professor I met in Ghana once told me that the African family, and by extension, the African village are Africa’s contribution and gift to all of humanity.
Let’s begin with the name of the tragic hero, Troy. The name refers both to a place in legend and a real-life archaeological site. Helen of Troy, a Spartan queen, was abducted by Paris, the son of Troy’s King Priam, which started the Trojan Wars. The city was, in legend, besieged for 10 years. Troy was eventually conquered by a Greek army led by King Agamemnon. So Troy as a name is already legendary, as was the soft-spoken pianist in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Toledo, also named for a legendary European city.
Through the story and background of Troy Maxxom, Wilson introduces his audiences to the wonders and the greatness of the Negro Baseball League, and such legendary players as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Jackie Robinson, the first black player to break into the Majors. The first professional black team, the Cuban Giants, formed in New York in 1885. The National Colored Baseball League was established in 1887, failed, and was re-established in 1920. It lasted competitively until 1951 when major league baseball integrated. Baseball itself was “born” in Confederate prison camps in the south during the Civil War as a past-time for prisoners. At the end of the war, prisoners returned home and took baseball with them to their home towns. Troy learns to play baseball while imprisoned for murder and theft in the 1920’s and 1930’s. A Negro League star player and athlete, Troy resented never getting a crack at the Major League, being considered too old and past his prime.
Troy has an outsized personality, befitting a former professional athlete, and all the other characters revolve around him, that is until he begins to make mistakes, then one by one, each character drifts away from his orbit. Troy’s relationships with those around him are often complex and always genuine and authentic, but his indiscretions catch up with him and enclose him in a very personal and tragic hell of his own making.
The play is set in 1957, three years after the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v Board of Education, which put an end to the legal underpinning of the American style of apartheid. But nothing happens suddenly, and in my early teenage years in the late 1960’s, over a decade after the Supreme Court decision, I found myself involved in several initial integration efforts – the local public library, Boy Scout camp, public school and prep school. In fact, throughout my professional career, in the submarine Navy and in the diplomatic corps, I still have not seen a level of black participation even close to proportionate to our percentage of the population. Some fences work.
Rose has Troy building a fence so she can keep the family she cherishes in and the negative elements out. She seeks to achieve a type of “separateness,” a separate peace if you will. But it is not to be. Cory grows up and leaves, Troy seeks other love interests, and even Rose herself eventually finds outside solace in the church. The fence is not effective as a barrier wall against outside intrusion. We see analogues in the body politic. The countries of Southern Europe are vulnerable to African immigrants willing to take their chances with the perils of crossing the sea, a type of barrier. (Note: the Qaddafi fence kept that movement of immigrants in check for many years. End note.) Similarly, the U.S. finds itself embroiled in a coming economic cataclysm as South American immigrants take advantage of Biden executive actions to lower the barrier to entry by lessening the risks of illegal entry into the United States via its southern border. Israeli PM Netanyahu said just last week (March 10, 2021):
“In fact, I put up a fence, you know,” he added. “They call it a wall. But I prevented the overrunning of Israel, which is the only first-world country that you can walk to from Africa. We would have had here already a million illegal migrants from Africa, and the Jewish state would have collapsed. The Jewish State, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, would have collapsed.”
Looking at real world uses of fences helps to put things in perspective.
Pay special attention to Wilson’s epigraph because it emerges at several fractures in the play. Also pay attention to Wilson’s prologue, called simply, “The Play.” It is laden with hints and secret surprises.
The play “paints” Troy as a pretty unsympathetic creature, especially vis-a-vis his son, Cory, and his wife, Rose. But is he really so bad a guy? Similarly, Cory is presented as pure as the driven snow, without spot of blemish. But he does lie to his father and sometimes he treats his father badly. Rose appears to be the long-suffering wife, but might that also be an optical illusion, a diversion from the reality that nobody is perfect?
Troy’s bantering about his struggles with the devil are entertaining, but it is only a subterfuge for real struggles and traumas he has faced in his life. His warnings to Cory about sports are legitimate and I don’t think Cory made a bad choice in joining the Marines, so long as he gets out at the end of his enlistment and before Vietnam heats up. Nobody needs to die in a foreign war.
I mention in notes from an earlier session that the spoken affection Troy has for Bono, and Bono reciprocates, is fairly unusual for men in the 1950’s. That impressed me. When Lyons asked Troy to come see him play at the local club, Troy remarks that he doesn’t like that Chinese music. I had to look up that reference. Turns out jazz was very popular in Shanghai and even in Beijing from the late 1920’s, about the time, coincidentally, of Ma Rainey’s popularity in the U.S. Known as shidaiqu, a type of fusion between European jazz and Chinese folk, it was obliterated from the scene during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Speaking of which, Lyons’ verbalization of his attraction to music is strongly reminiscent of words Ma Rainey used. I’ll bring that up in discussion Thursday.
There will be more notes after Thursday’s discussion. In the interim, here are links to previous sessions and to the playlist which is really quite good!
Both Joan Herrington, in her essay “The Complexity of Conflict,” and Joan Fishman, in her essay, “Developing His Song: August Wilson’s Fences,” present us with what I call longitudinal cross sections of the various editions of Fences from its inception and first performance to its final edition that we now see on stage and adapted for film. Two Joans. There are so many examples to cite of plot changes and line reversals. The most poignant for me it the analysis of the final conflict between Cory and Troy. An early edition has Cory swing the bat at Troy, followed by Troy getting a gun and actually cocking back the hammer and pointing the gun at Cory. Cory scurries into the alley and is not heard from again until Troy’s funeral. Shortly before the next edition of the play, the singer Marvin Gaye had been killed by his father with a gun. Wilson decided to drop the gun detail from the story.
While not pronounced loudly, it is significant to mention that Troy was a unionized employee and it was the union that interceded when he sought the promotion to driver on his job. I only focused on it after reading about efforts this week to unionize workers at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Bessemer, AL.