The quintessential American dream home is usually depicted with a white picket fence surrounding it, the fence symbolizing a certain idyllic middle class coziness. That’s not what trash collector Troy Maxson (Denzel Washington, who doubles as director) sees when he imagines the fence he’s building in his backyard in 1950s Pittsburgh; his fence is more practical and nefarious, intended to keep his family in and his demons out.
August Wilson’s Fences starts out on a bright note: like Johnny Kemp, Troy just got paid and it’s Friday night. He’s walking home from work with his bestie, Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), for a drink in the backyard. Troy is jovial, recounting a confrontation with a superior (Christopher Mele) about his job assignment and singing the praises of his wife, Rose (Viola Davis). She takes a break from making dinner and steps outside, and he’s playful. All appears to be well.
The mood doesn’t stay bright for long: Troy gets mean when he drinks. The presence of his sons—Lyons (Russell Hornsby), a late-thirties jazz musician, and Cory (Jovan Adepo), a high school student—seems to worsen his mood. This is the Troy who occupies the rest of the story; he grows increasingly officious toward Cory after Rose tells him a college recruiter is wooing Cory with a football scholarship.
Troy is bitter, petty, and conflicted. He’s protective yet jealous of Cory; he loves Rose with all his heart, yet he betrays her in the worst way. Clearly a victim of circumstance, he exhibits the effects of a cycle of defeat: drinking, adultery, and resentment. Although Fences is not the same story, Troy has a lot in common with Willy Loman, the protagonist of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Despite their societal differences, both characters failed to achieve the American dream and carry a weighty rancor because of it—the worst of it coming from within. Where Loman faces obsolescence, Troy faces never having reached a position in which he was valued in the first place. His big moment was playing baseball in the Negro league for a few years when he was young; he never had an opportunity to move onto the majors because, he says, the nation just wasn’t ready for it (don’t even bring up Jackie Robinson).
Fences is very much about the drama inside the characters rather than around them. Washington, who with Davis performed the play on Broadway in 2010, takes a straightforward approach. Aside from some period sets and costumes, he foregoes frills in favor of character and dialogue. As a result, Fences is like watching a play; the slow pace and relative lack of action will not appeal to everyone, but the intensity of the performances—every one of them rock solid and (ugh, I really hate this word, but it’s accurate) electrifying—is all I need.
Race is inextricable from Troy’s story, but Fences digs deeper than that. An awful lot is going on here—themes of family, duty, respect, and forgiveness resonate with me (and probably most people). Wilson once commented in an interview with The Paris Review that “[b]y looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbage man’s life is affected by the same things—love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.” (https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/839/august-wilson-the-art-of-theater-no-14-august-wilson). Whether the timing was planned or incidental, Fences is timely: despite the many advances that people of color have made since Troy’s world—including but certainly not limited to the first black president—things in the States today seem to be regressing. It’s disheartening to watch.
I never read any of his work, but I’ve known about Wilson for a long time not just from college literature and drama classes that mentioned him but also from productions of a few of his plays at the Goodman over the last decade. I’m embarrassed to say that Washington’s film adaptation of Fences is my first and only experience with the playwright. I loved it. Fences is one of ten plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, depicting the black experience in America during each decade of the 20th Century (http://www.august-wilson-theatre.com/plays.php). Washington signed on to the rather ambitious project of producing nine of them (http://www.npr.org/2016/12/25/506617435/denzel-washington-and-viola-davis-on-adapting-fences-and-honoring-august-wilson). I guess I’ll have a chance to see more.
(AMC River East) A-