That’s my first love- the theater. –Denzel Washington
This past Saturday, I went to NYC to see my first Broadway play, the Pulitzer Prize winning Fences by August Wilson. Fences is part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, a collection of ten plays. Each drama explores a different decade in the 20th century, and each examines the lives and struggles of African Americans. The 13-week limited engagement of Fences is at the Cort Theater (138 W. 48th St. btwn 6th Ave & Bdwy).
Playwright August Wilson
Fences is a powerful family drama set in the late ’50s starring Denzel Washington (twice an Oscar winner) and Viola Davis (recent Oscar nominee). This is a character-driven story with one simple set (action takes place on the front porch of a humble little house). I was lucky enough to get a ticket for the 9th row (close to stage). Once I got over the “Wow, I’m seeing Denzel in person!” feeling, I really got involved in the play. The (diverse) audience enjoyed it very much, too. We laughed, we got teary-eyed, and… WE SAW DENZEL!!!
Denzel Washington (Troy)
At one point, Denzel’s character enumerated all that he had to give before exiting the stage. One elderly woman called out: “I’ll take it!” LOL! And yes, he is JUST as handsome up close as onscreen.
As expected, Denzel stopped traffic in front of the theater for some minutes while people hovered about seeking pictures or just a glimpse before the limos set off. Unfortunately, he didn’t stay for autographs, but I noticed the young actor who played his son (Chris Chalk) signing playbills.
At the start of the play, Troy Maxon (Denzel Washington) is a 53 yr. old former Negro League baseball player who hauls trash in the Hill District of Pittsburgh w/ his best pal Jim Bono (actor/theater educator Stephen McKinley Henderson). Troy lives in an old house w/ his 2nd wife Rose (Viola Davis) and their 17 y.o. son Cory (Chris Chalk). Though Troy is illiterate, he is a hard-worker hoping to get a promotion. Troy and Rose seem to have a solid (yet passionate) relationship after 18 yrs. together. Cory works at the A&P (grocery store), but hopes to attend college on a football scholarship.
Viola Davis (Rose)
When Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s 34 y.o. son from a previous marriage, drops by on a FRI (payday) to ask for $10, Troy is NOT too amused. He tells Lyons that he’s a married man now, and needs to take care of himself and his wife. (Lyons’ wife works as a laundress, though she has trained as a nurse.) Troy advises him to “learn a trade,” but Lyons insists that he’ll stick to music. “I’m not like the rest of you- I’m a musician,” Lyons says with bravado. Rose and Bono persuade Troy, and he grudgingly allows Rose to loan out the $10. (Rose, a practical AND caring woman, is the keeper of the family purse.) As Lyons picks up his horn to leave, the disappointment is evident on Troy’s face. “He’ll be back,” Troy concludes.
While Lyons was visiting, Troy’s younger brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) dropped by. Gabe, a WWII vet, has a “metal plate in his head” and is now mentally handicapped. We learn that the Maxon house was bought w/ money from Gabe’s veteran’s benefits. But Gabe recently moved out of the house to live in a boarding house. “I got two rooms!” he enthusiastically tells Rose. Gabe sells fruit in the neighborhood to earn a bit of money for his room/board.
Though Rose is patient/kind with Gabe, his presence is an irritation to Troy. “I done everything I can for the boy,” Troy exclaims w/ exasperation when Rose worries about Gabe’s health/habits. Being in the hospital wasn’t right for Gabe, Troy rationalizes, b/c “what did he go over there and get his head blown off for” (if he can’t have freedom).
Troy has been waiting for Cory to help him finish the fence around the yard. But Cory has been practicing football after school. Cory announces to his parents a recruiter is coming to see him soon, and needs his Troy’s signature to sign him up (to play for a college in North Carolina). Rose is very proud of her son, but Troy is skeptical.
Chris Chalk (Cory)
We learn that Troy has gotten a position as a driver, so he won’t be working in the back of the garbage truck w/ Bono anymore. (Driving positions usually went to white men.) When Bono points out that Troy can’t drive yet, Troy shoots back: “Everyone doesn’t gotta know my business!” He’ll learn how to drive before it’s time for him to take up the new position. Lyons comes by w/ good news- he has a steady gig at a good club. Troy’s surprised when Lyons offers to give him back the $10 he borrowed. When he invites his father to come hear him, Troy refuses by saying “I’m too old to be going to clubs.”
Cory is desperate for his father to understand; he names different athletes (including blacks and Jews) who have excelled in baseball. Troy bitterly tells Cory that he’s more stupid than he thought, and that there’s no future in sports for a black man. Troy is enraged when Cory tells him that he’s quit his job at the A&P to concentrate on football. Father and son square-off, and it looks like they will come to blows!
To learn what happens, go read (or see) the play!
Baseball is one of the themes of the play. On stage right, a ball of rags is tied to a branch. Both Troy and Cory practice swinging at the ball at the start of the play. Later on, when the father and son argue, the bat will be turned on Troy – though Troy will ultimately win in that confrontation. At the end of Act One, he warns his son: “You swung and you missed. That’s strike one. Don’t you strike out!”
Troy was a great baseball player, at least according to his friend Bono. Although he played for the Negro Leagues, he was not allowed to on the white teams. The success of Jackie Robinson and other black players is a touchy subject for Troy. He never earned the recognition or the money which he felt he deserved – and discussion of professional sports will often send him into a tirade. Though Rose insists that “you were too old,” Troy feels it was solely racism that kept him shut-out.
During Act Two of Fences, he uses a baseball metaphor to explain why he had an affair:
I fooled them, Rose. I bunted. When I found you and Cory and a halfway decent job . . . I was safe. Couldn’t nothing touch me. I wasn’t gonna strike out no more. I wasn’t going back to the penitentiary. I wasn’t gonna lay in the streets with a bottle of wine. I was safe. I had me a family. A job. I wasn’t gonna get that last strike. I was on first looking for one of them boys to knock me in. To get me home. …then when I saw that gal . . . she firmed up my backbone. And I got to thinking that if I tried . . . I just might be able to steal second. Do you understand after eighteen years I wanted to steal second?
Father-son relationships are very crucial in Fences. On the stage, the emotionally strained relationship between Troy (who’s based on August Wilson’s stepdad) and Cory is highlighted. At one point, Corey asks “Why don’t you like me?” Troy is amused by this question, and retorts w/ “I don’t have to like you!” Troy goes on to say that he gives his son food, a roof over his head, and provides for his life. But Cory wants more from his father, but Troy is incapable of expressing that.
But the unseen relationship of the play is the one between Troy and his father, who was a sharecropper in early 20th century Alabama. Troy reveals secrets from his youth to Bono and Lyons in one (quietly powerful) scene. After noting some of his father’s brutish behavior, Troy (who fled from home at 14) flatly calls him “The Devil.” (Denzel really shines in this scene!)
Freedom is another theme in Fences. Several times Troy exclaims that he “needs to be free.” But from what? To the audience, he seems to have a lot going for him (at the opening of the play). He has a supportive wife, talented sons, and a loyal best friend. He’s struggling to make ends meet, but he’s NOT alone. Everyone in the community is (of course) dealing w/ ingrained racism.
As Troy’s character is revealed, we realize that he can NEVER be free of the one man he hates- his father. Though Troy says he doesn’t behave like his old man, Troy is very hard on Cory. When Cory gets angry and obstinate, Rose says w/ frustration: “You’re just like him!” Perhaps we can never be free of our past, parents, and mistakes- they make up our character.
With such a stellar cast, the acting could NOT be anything but top-notch! Denzel hit JUST the right notes w/ his role; he made Troy a believable (yet flawed) character. With this type of character, some actors could go over-the-top, but Denzel keeps it grounded. Troy is a complicated man, though HE would never admit to that. He is charming, funny, sarcastic, hard-headed, etc. just like all of us. But he DOES NOT analyze his actions; that’s just NOT his way.
Viola Davis’ role grows as the play goes on. She does a terrific job in portraying Rose, a woman of great character and integrity. We sense that Rose could’ve done much better for herself, given her sensibility and sensitivity, but she stuck with Troy out of love/passion/loyalty. She invested a lot in their relationship, and is DEEPLY hurt when it breaks. But, above all, Rose is a survivor, and Viola Davis suits this role to a tee. There is no sense of acting.
Official site (w/ a GREAT NYT video interview)
Denzel finds his “voice” in Fences
About playwright August Wilson:
2 short interviews w/ Denzel: