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.
I’m back in Kampala after a week in Gulu. It amazes me when I think back on everything that I experienced in that week! And it all happened because two years ago, back at my theatre, we decided to do a play called Ruined. There were many points of connection between Lynn Nottage’s play and my trip. Salima, one of the main characters in the play was abducted and forced to serve as a sexual slave to one of the militias. Many of WGEF’s women share that same horror story. Abducted persons, many of whom were children when they were taken, are still returning from “the bush.”
I met so many powerful women on my trip, survivors all, who share their strength with Mama Nadi. Karen Sugar, the founder of Women’s Global Empowerment Fund, keeps saying that women will always rise to the challenge when given the opportunity and some support. Given the example of Grace, who rose from the grim reality of the internally displaced person’s camp to win local elected office and hopes to run for Parliament in 2016, I’d have to agree with her. Some of the women are currently forming an agricultural union. Throw a drama festival and playwrights will emerge.
Watching the women perform their monologues, dramas and dances last Saturday affirmed not only the empowering effect of self- and group expression, but also the galvanizing effect drama can have on those gathered to witness it. This tradition of performing to heal a community goes back as far as the beginning of theatre itself. The theme chosen by the women of a woman’s right to own land, previously lurking in the wings, has now (post drama festival and town hall meeting) been pushed center stage. And there is no turning back.
So where does the Denver Center take its relationship with WGEF from here? For one thing, Karen is hoping to bring one of the rising playwrights to Denver this winter. What about bringing one of our commissioned women playwrights over for the festival? Or what about staging a play from the western canon with these women, a play that would connect with the social impulse behind their dramas and have a little humor, something say by Brecht or Dario Fo. It could be translated into the local language and adapted to have local resonance by one of the festival’s emerging playwrights.
To return to Ruined, the tragic fact is that in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo the conflict still rages. It has been called the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman. Here in Uganda, now that the conflict has ended, women are busy trying to heal past wounds and move ahead with their lives. It’s extraordinary to see how far some of these women have already come. And it’s heartening to see the impact that theatre can have in creating a voice for women.
Sunday, Sept. 25
I need to start today’s entry with a retraction. This is what can happen when someone like me who’s just arrived in a country tries to write from a position of knowledge and with a degree of certainty. The story that I told about the destruction of the main market was in fact mostly fiction based on some dramatic misinterpretation on my part. The riots in Gulu were relatively minor (as opposed to those in Kampala) and based on the high price of fuel and food. The local riots were not violently put down, and the main market was razed by the authorities in order to build a more modernized one. However, the larger riots in Kampala were violently put down by military troops, some of whom used live ammunition.
OK, with that behind me I can move forward to talk about yesterday’s drama festival. The event took place on an open field behind an elementary school, with a raised stage and covered seating areas. Luckily the weather played along. The whole festival, with ten groups performing, lasted a little over five hours with an intermission in which lunch was served to the over 250 spectators and participants. Performances included plays, monologues, and a combination of song and dance. Given the theme of a woman’s right to own land, many of the plays shared a similar plot line: when a woman’s husband dies, she is thrown off her husband’s land with her children. With nowhere to go, she returns to her parents who likewise cast her out. Then she finds out that the constitution actually gives her the right to own land and the play ends on a positive note.
The dances, coupled with singing, were traditional and often accompanied by drums or other percussive instruments. The dances were generally performed on the empty ground in front of the six-foot high stage, charging the audience with an electric energy that was infectious. So much so that women from the crowd would climb down from their chairs and join in. This spirit of celebration turned the day into one big party. There was an overriding feeling of togetherness and support linking the various groups.
A large group of local children filled the open spaces between the stands and watched with rapt attention. At the end of the day, as people were leaving and things were being dismantled, the deejay cranked up the music and the kids took over the stage, creating their own joyous after party.
The festival is called “Kikopo pa mon” which, in the local Acholi language, means “Creative a voice for women” and this event, performed for a mixed crowd that included local community leaders and politicians, husbands, sons and daughters, achieved just that.
Saturday, Sept. 24
I went on one last field trip today before the big drama festival tomorrow. We went to visit Joyce, another WGEF client, who has a small farm on the outskirts of Gulu. She greets us in her beautifully patterned dress and immediately starts showing us around. The first thing we get to see are her animals: a milk cow and its calf, and a number of pigs she keeps in her “piggery.” All the stalls are clean and the animals seem happy and healthy. She started keeping the animals when she got a loan specifically for agricultural projects. The diversity of crops was stunning: papayas (some of the largest I’ve ever seen), guava, corn, eggplants, peppers, sugar cane (which she grows for her children and grandchildren), mangos, oranges and limes and much more. As we wind our way between the trees and vegetables she tells us how this property has been in her family for years. During the 20 years of brutal civil war, she was extremely fortunate to be able to stay on her land because as luck would have it the military barracks were just a stone’s throw away. Most other families in this part of Uganda were driven from their homes, landing in crowded and dangerous internally displaced persons camps. Those times come up rarely in polite conversation, however one woman we met in the market was missing most of her fingers.
I was able to interview Winnie, the playwright and director of the play I got to watch in rehearsal a few days back. She is a gracious, stately woman who exudes warmth. She is passionate about the theme of this year’s festival, as for her the difficulty women have in owning property is just one more way that women have been mistreated in her country. She’s adamant that women and men, boys and girls should be treated as equal. “When you have girls, that’s a gift from heaven,” she says. She tells me she wrote her play in three weeks, working with a circle of women she meets with every Saturday. She had some beginning story ideas, and the women helped her fill them out. She tells me that both stories and plays are a part of her culture, which explains why the women feel so comfortable jumping into characters and putting on a play. She started writing plays for the WGEF drama festival, but she and her circle have continued writing plays outside of the festival, inviting local leaders and throwing a party. The plays are having an effect she tells me. A neighbor of hers with a very strict husband has come into her own through joining up with Winnie’s circle and taking part in the plays.
I was also able to catch up with Grace Akello, whom I had met last December when she traveled to the Denver. At that time Grace told us of her plans to run for local office, and not only did she run but she won the election. There is an official affirmative action policy for women to redress past discrimination. She says that one third of the Council must be women. We talk a bit about the drama competition and she emphasizes the special power drama has to get a message across and even change minds. She expands on the problems women face regarding land ownership: traditionally when a woman gets married she leaves her family to live with the husband and his family. If a woman’s husband dies, the husband’s family is likely to throw the woman off that land, along with her children. It’s a huge problem and she is working to sensitize the community (especially the men) to this issue.
I’m very excited about the drama festival, which is supposed to go from 9:00 to 5:00 tomorrow (although most things here seem to start and end late).