August Wilson’s play ‘Fences’ is the sixth of ten plays in the playwright’s “Pittsburgh Cycle.” Set in the early 1950s, ’Fences’ explores themes relating to the evolving African American experience in general and to race relations in particular. It premiered at the Yale Repertory Theater in 1985 and in 1987, ‘Fences’ won both the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The plot revolves around Troy, a 53 year-old, blue collar head of household from Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the center of that city’s African American life. Like too many other Black men, Troy is struggling just to get by. At one time, he had been a talented baseball player in the Negro Leagues but his dreams of playing Major League baseball had been thwarted by baseball’s color ban. Troy had also served time for an accidental murder he committed during a robbery, but released from prison, he now makes his living as a trash collector.
Troy is hardly a heroic character. He’s stubborn, a drinker, a womanizer. He withholds affection from his wife and takes advantage of his sons. At one point in the play, Troy admits to his wife Rose that he has been having an affair and that his mistress, Alberta, is pregnant. When it is revealed that Alberta dies in childbirth, Troy brings the baby home and begs Rose to raise her. Rose agrees but tells Troy, “From right now, this child’s got a mother, but you are a womanless man.” Once again, Troy is fenced in.
Fences can keep people in or keep people out. The picket one in front of our little house is anchored on one end by a flowering mandevilla plant that never fails to attract both admiration and disappointment. People passing by always stop to admire the mandevilla’s bright color but when they bend to sniff it, I can tell they’re a bit disappointed because it has no discernible aroma.
The wee wife and I like our mandevilla because its tendrils trail along, around, and through the fence line, softening the rigid pickets that stand at attention, guarding our little property from the winds that blow all around us: viruses, divisive political discourse, and, like Troy’s fence in Pittsburgh, the systemic racism that continues to beset our country, just as it has since its inception.
But there’s another dimension to our fence out front: sometimes it feels like I’m on it. Many of the decisions that come my way are simple with obvious solutions: I know for whom I’ll cast my ballot; I’ll wear a mask; Black lives matter. But some decisions are more complicated, more challenging. They involve choices with subtle distinctions or no clear right or wrong answer but with plenty of potential for consequences. Decisions like these may be colorful enough, but their aroma is harder to discern.
In Wilson’s play, it takes years for Troy to build the emotional barriers that separate him from his wife and children. He is trying desperately to keep bad things out while Rose works hard to protect the good things within. But by the end of the play, the sun breaks through the clouds and there is some small measure of salvation, some inkling of redemption and reconciliation between father and sons, husband and wife. Troy even gets his own garbage truck to drive; he’s no longer just a lifter. It’s not by any means what I would call a happy ending, but it’s satisfying enough. Kind of like admiration and disappointment.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with a home in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine.
Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com