Fences is a play written about a black family in a Pittsburgh neighborhood in 1957, but it is also about the coming of age in the life of a broken black man named Troy Maxson [Lester Purry].
From the moment August Wilson’s play “Fences” starts, there’s an energy on stage that’s palpable. Palm Beach Dramaworks never disappoints with the choices it makes in productions, whether it’s a comedy, musical or drama, like in this case. The craftsmanship of the set is more than you would expect from a regional theatre. But it is dramas like “Fences” that make PBDW’s tagline “theatre to think about” glimmer like a neon sign on Broadway.
Through his protagonist’s story, Wilson tells a story of duality—about a man sitting on both sides of a fence in his efforts to balance the good and bad in life. Perhaps Wilson’s own life inspired the story, as his mother was black, and his father was white. His father was an absentee father and his mother divorced him and married David Bedford, an ex-convict who had been denied a football scholarship because he was black.
The original Broadway production debuted in 1987, with James Earl Jones playing the role of Troy and Courtney B. Vance making his Broadway debut as Cory. “Fences” returned to Broadway in 2010, with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis playing the leads, in both the play and film version in 2016.
Troy is a black man with a strong dedication to his family, but with a strong sense of self and self-worth. He’s been disillusioned throughout his life by everyone he’s loved and has gotten close to, and as a result, has had a lot of bitter pills to swallow since an early age.
His mother left him when he was nine years old and his father beat him severely at 14 years old, leaving him by a creek to lick his wounds. It is at that age that Troy is forced to leave home and walk 200 miles to another city to begin a new life. He begins stealing to support himself, and later, to support his wife and young son Lyons [Warren Jackson]. This nocturnal trapeze ultimately gets him into trouble for which he pays his debt to society by spending 10 years in a penitentiary, which in 1957, was an extremely harsh environment for a black man. He gets out and starts playing baseball. He meets his new wife, Rose [Karen Stephens] and they live a presumably good life with their son, Cory [Jovon Jacobs].
But Troy is bitter. He is bitter because of all the opportunities that he’s been denied because of racism, most especially a shot in the major leagues. And yet, he refuses his sons Cory and Lyons to have a shot in the spotlight. Lyons is a musician, seeking his father’s approval; Cory is a high school football player with a chance to play college football, if only Troy authorizes his application.
Is Troy jealous of their sons or, is he trying to protect them from heartache? That’s an underlying theme that flows throughout this Two-Act play. According to a testimony given by his friend Jim Bono [John Archie], there have only been two men who have played the game better than him, and they were Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson, who played for the Negro League.
An interesting factoid about that time in history is that baseball did not integrate until the Negro League made a million dollars. In this story, Troy was passed over. He was forty years old, but he was still able to play ball and compete in the Negro League. So, he believes the same destiny is going to happen to his son Cory as he pursues football. “You’re not going to get anywhere because the white man is not going to let you get anywhere,” he tells Cory in a dramatic scene.
Troy is a conundrum.
He is a man who feels deep emotions and is prone to believe in self-created illusions. In the beginning of the play, he entertains Rose and Bono by telling them a story about his fight with Death, or the Devil, as he sees it in his head. Everything he says is a tale bigger than life, even the story of how he met Rose.
In his effort to look more gallant than he really is, he tells Bono how he asked Rose to marry him. “Baby, I don’t wanna marry, I just wanna be your man,” he recalls and Bono laughs. But Rose knows better and despite his attempt at romancing her, she calls his bluff and says, “Troy, you ought not to talk like that. Troy ain’t doing nothing but telling a lie.”
Troy’s duality is seen clearly in Act Two, as he portrays a man who is proud to provide a home for his family, and demands they live practical, responsible lives, while he is having an affair with another woman.
“Fences” is a timeless play. You never know how a community receives a play until they receive it and relate to it. But, many of the scenes that are brought up in “Fences” are happening today. For one, racism is still alive in many parts of our country. “We look at time in a different way than we should, I think,” said Purry. “We think about all the modern discoveries we’ve had. Most of us are walking around with a smart phone in our hands that is more powerful than the computers that sent man to the moon.”
“My mother and father experienced everything from the horse and buggy to the space shuttle in their lifetime,” he said. “My mother passed away just six years ago, so I’m just a generation from the horse and buggy. My father was born in 1925. Had he been born sixty years earlier; he would have been born in the era of slavery. So, all this stuff is not so far from us.”
So, you see the things that Troy is complaining about the inequalities, the unfairness, the lost opportunities. Sadly, still in 2019, these are very much prevalent today. What this play does it lets you see the humanity of this man, of this family. For some of us, this is quite real. We understand his struggles, suffering, and frustration, because we are not too far removed from that. Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. If it could happen then, it could happen now.
“Fences” cast gives a riveting performance, and Purry’s imposing presence fills the stage with the delivery of his lines that have both comedy and drama in it. The play has given people an opportunity to see that the “black family experience” affects all of us. This is not an isolating experience; we are not removed from it. We are Americans. And Troy wanted the American dream so badly, and he was denied it because of the color of his skin.
“Fences” is now playing at Palm Beach Dramaworks, located at 201 Clematis St, West Palm Beach, until April 21st. To buy tickets, go to palmbeachdramaworks.com or call the box office at (561) 514-4042.
“Fences,” a Story of Duality by Palm Beach Dramaworks