Some 20 odd years ago, I first read the play Fences by August Wilson.
I was a high schooler – a senior, I think. One of four black students in a graduating class of about 100 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 don’t remember all of those days vividly, but certain ones stand out – one being the day I noticed a copy of that play sitting on a stack of textbooks for the school year. It had the ghost-like outline of James Earl Jones in a batter’s stance (later I would come to realize this was Troy Maxson, 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 of Fences but by the characters.
I remember reading the story and sympathizing with the teenage children, 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 Loman, Troy was a former baseball star from the Negro Leagues, barred from playing in the Major Leagues because of his skin color. In his later life, he finds himself as a sanitation worker fighting 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 because of it.
All these years later, now a father myself, 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 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.
Recently I watched the movie version of Fences with Denzel Washington bringing 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 contains layers that seem to peel away with each scene until the core of the story reveals itself 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. Wilson’s writing is top-notch and worthy of every award Fences received a nomination for and won, as a play and as a film. 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.
A version of this first appeared on Tales from the Poop Deck.