There are many fences in August Wilson’s play of that name, literally and figuratively. In the new Broadway production, starring Academy Award winner Denzel Washington, there is the tangible wooden fence that Troy Maxson, Washington’s character, and his teenage son Cory construct in fits and starts for the matriarch of the house, Rose.
One of Rose’s favorite church songs is “Jesus, Be A Fence All Around Me Every Day.”
This is 1957 Pittsburgh, a fairly segregated place where blacks are walled off from the rest of the city through invisible barriers of racism. Troy is bitter because he never made it to the big leagues in baseball, and he realizes that the best jobs in the sanitation department where he works goes to white men, not 53-year-old black men such as himself. So Troy has built an invisible fence to protect himself from the pain. In doing so, however, he has constructed a fence between himself and Cory, who wants to play football. Troy forbids that, even though a college recruiter is en route from North Carolina.
That wooden fence is nothing compared to the barrier between father and son. “You go on and get your book-learning so you can work yourself up in that A& P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something, get you a trade. That way you have something can’t nobody take away from you. You go on and learn how to put your hands to some good use. Besides hauling people’s garbage.”
At one point Cory asks his father if he likes him. That sets Troy off on a memorable tirade, which includes: “Like you? I go out of here every morning , putting up with them crackers every day. Cause I like you? You about the biggest fool I ever saw. It’s my job. It’s my responsibility. You understand that? A man got to take care of his family.”
The parameters of Troy Maxson’s world are work, the front yard where he clowns around with his best friend, Jim Bono, Rose, his wife of 18 years with whom he has a playfully sexual relationship, and a juke joint where he sometimes goes, ostensibly to catch baseball there. That’s how another fence comes into view. He fathers a child with another woman, who dies in childbirth, and brings the baby girl home to Rose to take care of. “From right now, this child got a mother,” she tells him. “But you a womanless man.” Thus, the fence between a once loving couple.
The original 1987 Broadway production of Fences drew accolades for James Earl Jones, who played Troy Maxson. He won a Tony, as did the play. And Wilson, who died in 2005 at age 60, won one of two Pulitzer Prizes.
In hindsight it seems a no-brainer that this would become the most acclaimed of Wilson’s 10-play cycle, each play focusing on one decade in the life of black Americans in the 20th century. Producers and theatergoers seemed to know at the outset that Fences was masterful, but I recall sitting next to Wilson at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 1986 when he was the most nervous man there, and I came away black and blue from all his fidgeting, elbowing and kneeing me. At intermission, he rushed out for a few smokes.
Washington’s portrayal of Troy is every bit as powerful as Jones’s was. He dominates the stage with humor and with palpable rage. Viola Davis, a veteran of other Wilson plays, including King Hedley II, for which she won a Tony, more than holds her own against Washington in a subtlely strong performance. The seven-character play is directed by Kenny Leon, who won a Tony for a revival of A Raisin in the Sun.
Playing at the Cort Theatre, on West 48th Street in Manhattan, the limited run is scheduled to close July 11.
WATCH DENZEL WASHINGTON TALK ABOUT HIS BROADWAY ROLE