Recently, I had the opportunity to see an advanced screening of Fences. You can read my review of it here, but I thought I would share the personal side of why this story means a lot to me.
About 20 some odd years ago, I read Fences for the first time.
I was a high schooler – a senior, I think. One of 4 black students in a a graduating class of about 100 young men at an all boys prep school. There were many reasons why I was different. There were many reasons why I felt I didn’t belong. There were many reasons why I didn’t want to be there.
Yet, there I was.
I can’t say that I remember all of those days vividly, but there are certain ones that stick out – one of which is the day that I noticed that August Wilson play sitting on the stack of textbooks for the school year. It had the ghostlike outline of James Earl Jones in a batter’s stance (later I would come to realize this was Troy, the central figure of the saga).
And so I read it. I was entranced.
I remember being drawn in not so much by the plot, but by the characters.
I remember reading the story and sympathizing with Cory and Lyons as their dreams conflicted with their father’s will and ambitions for them and his rather simplistic view of life. I remember seeing their father, Troy, as a flawed, yet likable character, who, even though you disagreed with his actions and many of his words, you still rooted for him. You recognized that his life was a potent cocktail of misfortune, oppression, bad decisions, and tortured memories. He was a tormented and scorned Willy Loman, whose dream was deferred and he just couldn’t let that vision, of what he could have been, go. Instead of being a salesman like the aforementioned Loman, Troy was a former baseball star from the Negro Leagues, barred from playing in the Major Leagues because of his skin color, who then finds himself as a sanitation worker fighting for the right to become the first black driver of one of the garbage trucks.
My father by no means carries the negative characteristics of Troy Maxson. However, knowing that my father worked the grounds of the school I attended when he was a kid with a dream that he would one day send his son there – I understood and appreciated not only the plight of Troy to provide for his family, but also the pressure that Cory felt becuase of it.
20 some odd years later, as a father I understand Troy’s desire to provide for his family and to demand a basic level of respect from the world around him. A desire to make sure that people do “right by him”and, consequently, his family as well. I still don’t agree with all of his actions or decisions, but I understand him more.
Throughout the story, Troy makes multiple baseball analogies. One of his favorites is that you have to “take the crookeds with the straights”. Life doesn’t always throw you fastballs down the heart of the plate. You also have to learn to deal with the curves.
And so last night, I watched Denzel Washington bring Troy to life on the big screen. It is an amazing performance equaled by Viola Davis’ portrayal of Troy’s wife, Rose. The strength, vulnerability, and hope displayed on screen is exactly what, I think, August Wilson intended when he penned the play. Every character is created with layers that seem to peel away with each scene until the core of the story is revealed at the end.
I’m not gonna tell you what happens, but I am going to encourage you to see it if you like complex characters and good writing. August Wilson’s writing is top notch and worthy of every award it should be nominated for and win. Wilson paints a world that is full of laughter, tears, love, regret, sorrow, happiness, and hope. But through it all, like Troy says, “you have to take the crookeds with the straights”.
This story is personal though. Fences is what propelled me into writing, into drama, into studying the Negro Leagues, and eventually into teaching. Teaching led to coaching and directing. So, I guess I have Troy, Cory, Rose, and August to thank for helping me find my passions in life.