By Dan Sullivan
Fences was, in fact, a considerable hit back in 1987, partly due to James Earl Jones’ giant performance as Wilson’s garbage-collector hero, Troy Maxson. But none of Wilson’s plays have broken box-office records or inspired major Hollywood movies. In fact Hollywood turned Fences down when Wilson had insisted they give it to a black director, Lloyd Richards.
Why, then, hang the Great Play tag around its neck? For many readers it could be a warning signal. Great Plays—aren’t they the ones the teacher made you read in high school?
Well, yes, but don’t be scared away. A truly great play (as distinct from a museum piece) starts with being a good story. Moreover, a durable one. This takes time to establish. Like the fence that Troy keeps trying to build (or keeps putting off building) for his hard-dirt yard, it’s not clear right away how a brand new play will stand up to the elements. One or two bad winters could reduce it to a pile of sticks.
The major hazard faced by an excellent-for-its-time script is change—new styles, new slang, a loosening (or tightening) of moral codes, political upheavals, everything that contributes to the sense that Broadway’s latest hit has become yesterday’s news.
Sometimes change comes slowly. We’re told that The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) was still being performed in London as a contemporary play (in flapper dress) in the 1920s. Or change can come overnight. William Inge’s plays, beloved in the 50s, each followed by a smash-hit movie, were suddenly declared old-hat at the dawn of the 60s, not through critical whim but because the national mood had changed with a new man in the White House and a new kind of theatre in the Village.
Fences opened 25 years ago, but would anyone call it old hat? I call it a classic. Time-stamped, yes, in the same sense that Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Death of a Salesman are, and every bit as permanent.
Fences was the first of Wilson’s ten-play cycle looking at African American life in the 20th century, each play representing a different decade. The year is 1957, just before the nation’s racial tensions will boil over. The scene is Pittsburgh, Wilson’s home town—indeed his old neighborhood.
The when-and-where of the story matter less than the who-and-why. Troy has a dead-end job with the city Sanitation Department, a job he’s trying to upgrade—with no hesitation at all, incidentally. He knows his rights.
We also meet his patient wife, his rebellious son, another son from a previous relationship, his shell-shocked brother and his best friend—all observed with Wilson’s usual close eye and sly sense of humor. Although some characters have fewer lines than others, everybody in this neighborhood is a somebody, at least to himself.
There are no white people, although Troy and his friends essentially live under white rule. But our hero’s blackness (central to the trap he’s in, and just as central to Wilson’s concern for him) counts for less, in my view, than our fascination with him as a character.
To apply an overworked term correctly, Troy Maxson is an awesome hero, several cubits above the pusillanimous Willy Loman and not far below King Lear, whom Shakespeare portrays only in his dotage. Wilson gives us Troy in full voice, always charging ahead and frequently messing up. You can see why his wife needs to be patient with him, and also why she puts up with him.
I discussed Fences with director Lou Bellamy before rehearsals started on his Denver Center Theatre Company production. Not only has Bellamy directed the play twice on his home stage—St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre—he’s also played Troy twice.
“The first time I hated him. Loathed the man,” Bellamy said. “I had had enough of fathers who hold their families hostage for the sake of a $50-a-week paycheck. Here’s this… throwback holding back his son from college. I also wasn’t sure I could handle the part.”
“Hate” or “Love” don’t seem to be part of the equation now. Bellamy has come to understand Troy’s anger at having been fenced out of a chance to play major-league baseball, made worse by a foul-up of his own. The director also admires Troy’s ability to take his life in hand and become a faithful husband (more or less) and a concerned father.
But here’s the rub. It’s the 1950s. Blacks by then could make a name for themselves in big league baseball and Troy’s teenage son, Cory, may have inherited Troy’s power as a hitter. But Cory’s starting to act up at home, starting to forget who’s boss around here. It’s up to Troy to bring him down to earth. No more sports. Tend to your chores. Stop dreaming. Grow up.
“Can I ask you a question?” Cory responds. “How come you ain’t never liked me?”
Troy’s reply is too penetrating to be quoted here. It’s not a measly little TV homily. It’s not even vaguely heartwarming. It’s an icy setting forth of the biological responsibilities of a grown-up man to his un-grown-up son, so pointed that fathers in the audience may want to salt it away for real-life use. What an orator Troy Maxson could have become in another life!
But Wilson isn’t writing about what might have been. Troy’s girlfriend is pregnant, and his new job on the garbage truck lacks savor. “He fights for it, but he’s not prepared to take it,” Bellamy notes. “He doesn’t even have a driver’s license. There’s a cost to be paid for these victories.”
David Alan Anderson will play Troy in Denver. “There are no shortcuts here,” Bellamy will tell him. “You have to find the father-figure in yourself. Is Troy trying to protect Cory because he knows how sports can set a young man up for failure or is he jealous that Cory’s getting the chance Troy never got from his own father? You don’t know, and that’s why it’s a tragedy.”
I asked Bellamy if Troy could be compared to Willy Loman. “It’s been attempted, but Willy fails from the inside, while Troy never gets that chance. I’ve had Japanese people grab me and say, ‘That’s my father.’
“That’s what gives the play resonance. But the actors have to be ensconced in a black reality.”
A story from a particular time that speaks to us here and now. A simple story with complexities enough to challenge the most masterful actor. Those are some of the earmarks of a great play, and Fences seems to grow wiser with every passing year.
Dan Sullivan directs the O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute and teaches at the University of Minnesota. He has reviewed theatre and music for the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and the Minneapolis Tribune.