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.
Syllabus – August Wilson American Century Cycle
SG-685 – OLLI-AU. Spring 2021
The study group will read and discuss one August Wilson play each week for ten weeks, completing the Century Cycle of ten plays. Each group member will be required to read each play at home and be prepared to contribute to a group discussion on what they have read. The goal of the course will not be to exhaustively discuss each play. Instead, each group member (including the group leader) will select a brief passage to read aloud to the class, followed by a brief, collaborative close read and discussion by the group.
The course uses collaborative group discussion and close reading of a passage selected by each group member.
Group members will be required to procure all the plays listed below. The first five plays are linked in the syllabus, others will have to be purchased or borrowed from the library. The complete set of plays in hardback is available on Amazon for $100-$160. Each play can be found separately in paperback for $6-10 each.
Additional Suggested Texts
Bigsby, Christopher. Editor. 2007. The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson.
Bryer, Jackson and Mary C. Hartig. 2006. Conversations with August Wilson.
Elkins, Marilyn. 1994. August Wilson, A Casebook.
Herrington, Joan. 2004. I Ain’t Sorry for Nothing I Done.
Nadal, Alan. 1994. May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the drama of August Wilson.
Nadal, Alan. 2010. Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle.
Nadal, Alan. 2018. The Theatre of August Wilson.
Shannon, Sandra and Dana Williams. 2004. August Wilson and Black Aesthetics.
Shannon, Sandra. 1995. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. 2004. August Wilson: A Literary Companion.
Temple, Riley Keene. 2017. Aunt Esters Children Redeemed.
Class participation. Each study group member will be expected to contribute to each week’s discussion.
Week 1: March 4, 2021 – Jitney (1979)
Synopsis: Set in an unofficial taxi station threatened with demolition in 1977, Jitney explores the lives and relationships of drivers, highlighting conflicts between generations and different concepts of legacy and identity.
- Lahr New Yorker Interview, 2001. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2001/04/16/been-here-and-gone
- Suzan Lori-Parks Interview, 2005. https://www.americantheatre.org/2005/11/01/the-light-in-august-wilson-a-career-a-century-a-lifetime/
- Racist Roots of Urban Renewal. https://www.fastcompany.com/90155955/the-racist-roots-of-urban-renewal-and-how-it-made-cities-less-equal
- Full play pdf: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/jitney.pdf
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXZapfkM43eU0KVt5QWBxdlK
Week 2: March 11, 2021 – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982)
Synopsis: Set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the only cycle play not set in Pittsburgh), Ma Rainey examines racism in the history of black musicians and white producers, and the themes of art and religion.
- The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin. https://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf
- My blog post has lots of links: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/some-links-to-background-material-for-ma-raineys-black-bottom/ Ma Rainey film adaptation screenplay
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXb3E8p4pv7MmgNPoDUlqCB7
Week 3: March 18, 2021 – Fences (1984)
Synopsis: In 1957, Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League player, is a bitter man in his 50s who works as a garbageman. His frustration and disappointments in life affect his wife Rose and son Cory.
- Freytag’s Pyramid Dramatic Structure article: https://www.clearvoice.com/blog/what-is-freytags-pyramid-dramatic-structure/
- Article on Negro Baseball leagues. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/16/sports/baseball/mlb-negro-leagues.html
- America’s Most Undefeated Playwright: https://theundefeated.com/features/august-wilson-is-americas-most-undefeated-playwright/
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYPmItHweBOyfAwDJ-x1qwO
- Full play pdf: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/fences1.pdf
Week 4: March 25, 2021 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984)
Synopsis: Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911, the ensemble play includes characters who were former slaves and examines the residents’ experiences with racism and discrimination.
- Article on convict leasing programs: https://www.thoughtco.com/convict-leasing-4160457
- Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual – https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/09/06/the-prevalence-of-ritual-on-romare-beardens-projections/
- Maslow on Self-Transcendence. https://reasonandmeaning.com/2017/01/18/summary-of-maslow-on-self-transcendence/
- Full play pdf: https://wp.me/a4gJ6W-qe
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXaWJ0J5IXBUUpwoVe-klNmc
Week 5: April 1, 2021 – The Piano Lesson (1986)
Synopsis: Named after a painting by Romare Bearden, the play follows the Charles family in the Doaker Charles household. A brother and a sister have different ideas about what to do with their piano, a family heirloom. Sell it to purchase land their enslaved ancestors once toiled upon, or keep the piano, which includes carved depictions of two distant relatives.
- Exploring the Use of Myth and Mystical Practice in August Wilson’s Century Cycle – https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/colloquium-presentation-3-april-20186.pdf
- Article on Parchment Prison/Farm – https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/inside-mississippis-notorious-parchman-prison
- Youtube playlist (includes film adaptation): https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYBNIkZcDVM0y_xff-c1zCi
Week 6: April 8, 2021 – Two Trains Running (1990)
Synopsis: Set in 1969, the play revolves around a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which has suffered a long economic decline. The restaurant owner, Memphis, worries what will happen when the city comes to claim the building through eminent domain. A young activist, Sterling, tries to organize protests and rallies that can help save the restaurant, but Memphis is not so supportive.
- Dear White People – Two Trains Running is Not About Race: http://phindie.com/11061-11061-dear-white-people-two-trains-running-is-not-about-race/
- August Wilson Life and Work Timeline: https://www.post-gazette.com/ae/theater-dance/2012/06/01/August-Wilson-s-Life-and-Work-A-timeline-1945-2005/stories/201206010268
- YouTube Playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXZOBWNf_EwGXjngVAQKrvbC
Week 7: April 15, 2021 – Seven Guitars (1995)
Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1948, blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is newly freed from prison when he’s asked to sign a record deal after a song he recorded months before becomes a surprise hit. He struggles to right wrongs and make his way back to Chicago. Black manhood is a theme of the play and a rooster is used in to symbolize it.
- Aristotle Poetics, Parts 13-15 – https://gointothestory.blcklst.com/studying-aristotles-poetics-part-13-a-a-perfect-tragedy-2bced5e9ed3c
- A Short History of the Legend of Buddy Bolden – https://www.jazziz.com/a-short-history-of-the-legend-of-buddy-bolden/
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYQzNGKFRhdwbLYZ1mz6hLK
- Educational guide and synopsis: https://wp.me/a4gJ6W-qu
Week 8: April 22, 2021 – King Hedley II (1991)
Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1985, an ex-con tries wants to support a family and aims to get the money to open a video store by selling stolen refrigerators. The play features some characters from Seven Guitars.
- The Function of the Chorus in Greek Drama article – http://krishaamer.com/function-chorus-greek-drama/
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXaqsHCCMTcpz7qemeLe19xv
- Curriculum guide and synopsis: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/king-hedley.pdf
Week 9: April 29, 2021 – Gem of the Ocean (2003)
Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1904, the play features a man whose small crime has had deadly consequences for another man. Feeling guilty, he comes seeking the spiritual healing of Aunt Ester. A recurring character in Wilson’s plays, Ester claims to be 285 years old and is the kind matriarch of her household in Pittsburgh.
- August Wilson in the “City That Encourages Dreams”. https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/project_muse_588846.pdf
- Prologue: definition and examples – https://literarydevices.net/prologue/
- Baraka: Columbia the Gem of the Ocean – https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/baraka-gem-of-the-ocean.pdf
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXbpLBU1gTGwfhRV207HTXPb
- City of Dry Bones sermon: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/city-of-bones.pdf
Week 10: May 6, 2021 – Radio Golf (2005)
Synopsis: Set in 1990 Pittsburgh, this play concluded Wilson’s Century Cycle and is the last play he completed before his death. The home of Aunt Ester is threatened with demolition that will make way for real estate development in the depressed area. Investors include Harmond Wilks, who wants to increase his chance of becoming the city’s first black mayor. History and legacy challenge personal aspirations and ideas of progress.
- Radio Golf Student Guide: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/radio-golf-student-guide.pdf
- The Ground On Which I stand: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/the-ground-on-which-i-stand.docx
- Alan Nadal, The Theatre of August Wilson, Chapter 9: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/chapter_9_the_century_that_cant_fix_nothing_with_the_law_radio_golf.pdf
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXbZDGZ3NZTVicN5q755bnrd
Week 11: May 13, 2021. Wrap-ups (TBD)
First, the epigraph, or an interpretation of it, shows up in one of Rose’s monologues in Act 2, scene 3:
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.
Second, the play is clearly another Wilson tragedy, but while it lacks the Greek Chorus of Seven Guitars or the prologue of Gem, “The Play” more than suffices as a prediction of things to come. Moreover, let me note here that while the first paragraph addresses Wilson’s father, the second addresses his mother and her ancestral line. The third and final paragraph brings it home to the play’s present setting.
My practice is to include references to the passages I have highlighted or added comments and margin notes to on the present read. I will continue to adhere to that protocol.
A couple of things stand out for me in Scene 1.
Bono mentions of Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson, both historic personalities, somewhat legitimizes the play in a historical time setting. Troy establishes his philosophic credentials as a Stoic, facing death squarely and honestly (memento mori) and having no fear of Satan. Lyons connects to Ma Rainey and the blues tradition, describing music as something that “helps him get out of bed in the morning” and “makes him “feel like he belongs in the world.” Lyons also pushes back when Troy makes a derogatory comment about how his mother raised him, saying “You don’t know nothing about how I was raised.”
Scene 2 introduces us to Gabriel, Troy’s brother, slightly disabled from the war, WWII. Again, Wilson forces us to acknowledge the existence of the disabled and how we must offer them a reasonable accommodation in our lives. We saw this with Hedley in Seven Guitars, with Sylvester in Ma Rainey, and to a limited extent, with Herald Loomis in Joe Turner. And we will see it again. Wilson exhibits a high sensitivity to the needs of the disabled and the mentally and intellectually-challenged.
Scene 3 introduces us to Cory, Troy and Rose’s youngest son, and his relationship with both. Note: It’s not a very conspicuous introduction, and it is almost as if Cory had always been with us, just hidden.
Scene 4 reveals that Troy’s “going to the Taylors” to watch TV is really code word for going to see “That Alberta girl,” as Bono calls her. Bono senses early that Troy’s catting around with Alberta is not kosher. Bono introduces “Searching out the New Land” and “the walking blues.” And we learn about Troy’s relationship with his father.
Act Two Scene 1 opens and closes with Troy, Rose and Cory, the central three-way relationship in the play. Troy reveals that he has been unfaithful. Cory has lied to continue playing football. Rose questions Troy’s infidelity. Cory reaches strike two with his father.
Scene 2 is Troy and Rose exclusively. Troy’s functional illiteracy is fully exposed in the process of getting Gabriel committed. And Alberta dies in childbirth.
Scene 3 is a short scene wherein Rose establishes that she will be a mother to Troy’s new baby, with a reflection of the language of the play’s original epigraph.
Scene 4 shows Troy’s total unraveling, and because today is April 19, I wrote a poem about it for my daily submission to NaPoWriMo:
Fences – Act Two, Scene Four. Troy’s slow descent into Hell.
In the denouement our classic warrior
(Such is the tragedy that was his life)
Loses all that was once near and dear.
The cherished love of his wife is broken
After her decision to not refuse
The result of his infidelity.
He loses the respect of his son,
So long assumed, compelled by fear,
Never inspired by true affection.
His best friend doesn’t come around
Any more, not even for a Friday drink
That once satisfied a parched thirst.
Finally, abandoned by his own sense
of taste (Yes! A multiple metaphor!),
He is left to swing aimlessly at all
Those fast balls on life’s outside corners.
Scene 5 is the Troy funeral scene.
We are three weeks and change away from the start of the 4th session of the August Wilson American Century Cycle study group in the spring semester of the OLLI program at American University. And another two weeks away from the biennial August Wilson Society Colloquium in Pittsburgh, March 12-15. It all runs together in terms of preparation work and I am so excited about it all!