Sometimes an artist dies who has burrowed so deeply into our consciousness, we feel more than a tangible sense of loss; we feel pain. I felt this way when Miles Davis died. I felt this way when Sarah Vaughn died. I felt this way when comedian Bill Hicks died. And I feel this way right now, thinking about the death of playwright August Wilson at the all too young age of 60. Please read elsewhere for a full accounting of Wilson's artistic canon and contributions. My knowledge of the dramatic arts would fit comfortably on an index card. I suppose I know Wilson won every award from the Tony to the Pulitzer. I know Wilson wrote each of his plays to represent a decade of the 20th century Black experience in the United States. I know all of this now.
But in 1988 when I saw Fences on Broadway, all I knew was that I was 14 years old and thought going to a play would be as much fun as a shot glass of morphine. At the time, I was far more interested in [NY Mets Centerfielder] Mookie Wilson than August Wilson. I settled into my seat and assumed what anthropologists call "the slouch of the sulking brat," I had no idea that my every conception of theater, sports, and racism was about to be turned on its head.
Fences takes place in the 1950s and revolves around the larger than life personality of Troy Maxson. Troy is a 53 year old garbage collector in Pittsburgh, fiercely proud of his ability to put food on his family's table and a humble roof over their head. He is also someone whose life has been deeply scarred by the world of professional sports. Troy was a great Negro League baseball star who looks back on his experience with pride but also with a pulsing, breathing, resentment that he was locked out of Major League Baseball's money and fame
His friend Bono says, "Ain't but two men ever played baseball as good as you. That's Babe Ruth and [Negro League legend] Josh Gibson. Them's the only two men ever hit more home runs than you." Troy responds by saying, "What it ever get me? Ain't got a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of.Take that fellow. playing right field for the Yankees back then. Selkirk. Man batting .269. What kind of sense that make? I was hitting .432 with 37 home runs. Man batting .269 and playing right field for the Yankees! I saw Josh Gibson's daughter yesterday, she walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet. Now I bet you Selkirk's daughter ain't walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet! I bet you that!"
Troy was strangled by the Major League color line and wears those scars proudly, but he also beats those around him with his sense of failure, turning his scars into whips. He reserves special abuse for his seventeen-year-old son, Cory, who has the opportunity to get a college football scholarship. While everyone else encourages Cory, Troy refuses to sign off on his own son's scholarship. When Cory begs him to change his mind Troy says, "The white man ain't gonna let you get no where with that football no way. 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."
As Cory exits, choking back tears, Rose, asks, "Why don't you let that boy go ahead and play football. Troy? Ain't no harm in that. He's just trying to be like you with the sports." "I don't want him to be like me!" Troy answers in a rage. "I want him to move as far away from my life as he can get. You the only decent thing that ever happened to me. I wish him that. But I don't wish a thing else from my life. I decided seventeen years ago that boy wasn't getting involved in no sports. Not after what they did to me in the sports."
Eventually Troy, an absolute black hole of bitterness, almost swallows the Maxson family whole, pushing away his wife, child and friends. Troy can't overcome the contradiction in his life: the journey from superstar to picking up trash for nickels and dimes. He can't stand the thought of Cory getting abused by the athletic industrial complex in the same way. But he also can't stand the thought of Cory succeeding where he failed - just because he happened to be born "twenty years too early." He also cheats on his wife Rose because he hates the idea that she could love him for who he is - and that she is the best he could do, describing his marriage to her as "living for eighteen years on first base."
The title of the play is illustrative of Wilson's brilliance. Troy spends considerable time on stage building a fence for their modest home at the constant prodding of Rose. Her desire to see it built becomes an openly symbolic issue that the characters comment on with insight and sadness which rescues it from being a ham-handed symbolic device. His friend Bono remarks that "Some people build fences to keep people out. Others build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold onto you all. She loves you." Troy also makes direct reference to the fence. To him it's the last line of defense against the hellhounds nipping at his heels.
But the word "fences" recalls something else, never mentioned explicitly in the play. "Fences" is baseball slang for the outfield wall that must be cleared for a home run. The phrase "swing for the fences" or "clear the fences" is derived from this. Troy, who could clear the fences with ease on the field, feels trapped by them in his life. Sports, which held the promise of escape, instead fenced him in and swallowed him whole, and he attempts to take his family with him. In the play's final scenes, we see that his family has more strength than Troy ever gave them credit for - strength to withstand even his pull toward self destruction.
I can see this now. But in 1988, all I saw was that sports were not all fun and games: that they could invoke a kind of permanent howl of pain, especially when the "level playing field" proved for many to be anything but. I also saw that there was blood on the batting gloves of Major League Baseball whose stains were never discussed on NBC's Game of the Week.
August Wilson gave me - and countless others - this gift of elemental insight. He challenged my conceptions of sports, the Black athletic experience, and how to understand these two aspects so central to our popular culture. We should weep for August Wilson, his family and friends. But we should also weep for every play that won't be written, every Troy Maxson never brought to life, every lesson that will go untaught and by extension unlearned. Thank goodness we can cherish the body of work he left us. Thank goodness for August Wilson.