An American Tragedy: August Wilson's 'Fences' and race on Broadway
This was a season of race on Broadway, specifically of “Race”—David Mamet’s tendentious legal drama starring James Spader and David Alan Grier. The play opened in December and five months later broke even, not a small achievement for a new play in the shark tank of the commercial theater. But Mamet was not alone in tackling America’s still-thorny black/white divide on the Great White Way. There was a revival of the sweeping musical “Ragtime,” about a black musician standing athwart Gilded Age privilege; “Memphis,” about the miscegenetic origins of rock and roll, which has become an unlikely minor hit (expect to see it on tour immediately); Tracy Letts’s miniaturist drama about urban Chicago, “Superior Donuts,” praised in this space last year; and even the charmingly oddball revival of Yip Harburg’s 1947 satire “Finian’s Rainbow,” in which Irish pluck and class warfare trumped racism in the Jim Crow South.
While the lasting merit, not to mention entertainment value, of these race-themed shows has varied widely, all have struck chords with audiences eager to see the subject dramatized or at least broached. Despite its clunky, ham-handed dramaturgy and its contrarian, apparently right-leaning perspective, Mamet’s “Race,” for instance, has been attracting multiracial crowds who seem to respond viscerally to its impolitic provocations. If most of the other aforementioned shows could be said to flatter, or do precious little to ruffle, liberal sensibilities, they are notable for another reason: Along with Mamet’s play, they are all by exclusively white writers.
It seems only fitting, then, that this string of shows is capped by a rip-roaring revival of August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer-winner, “Fences,” starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis as Troy and Rose Maxson, a couple facing challenges from without and within Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the late 1950s. Given that Troy is a retired baseball star from the long-defunct Negro Leagues, the sports metaphor is irresistible: With bases loaded and a couple of outs (the early closing of “Ragtime” and “Finian’s Rainbow”), Wilson’s family drama constitutes a gratifying grand slam.
We should not let the whooping cheers that greet not only the headlining stars but the entire “Fences” team distract us from the play’s tragic weight or from its dire but not entirely despairing diagnosis of the nation’s social ills in microcosm. Like most of the 10 plays Wilson wrote in his cruelly brief life (one play set in each decade of the 20th century), “Fences” portrays a people in transition, pinned between American history and the American promise. Typically, their urgent struggle to claim both their patch of earth and their human dignity only half succeeds. Wilson’s characters do usually manage to locate some sense of their authentic self or “their song,” as the conjurer Bynum memorably put it in Wilson’s masterpiece “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (seen on Broadway last season). In the process they often pay with their lives, their peace of mind or, most commonly and wrenchingly, with severe collateral damage to their families and children.
“Fences” could be a case study out of The Moynihan Report, Senator Patrick Moynihan’s analysis of the status of the underclass in this country in the 1960s, specifically African-Americans. By play’s end, Troy can count one child each by three different women. All his progeny are hovering in the sympathetic but sturdy orbit of the only woman he married, long-suffering Rose, herself the child of what might charitably be called an “extended” family. It’s not a new point, but Wilson makes it with force over and over, and nowhere more forcefully than in “Fences”: The women keep the home fires burning while the men are off finding themselves, often in contention with each other. That is a worthy quest, no doubt, but all too often it includes a component of sexual conquest alongside other emblems of validation. Wilson created many exemplars of both the rover and the homebody in his plays, but no couple so iconic as Troy and Rose. None of his loyal women is more tested than Rose, and none of his questing men crash down to earth with a greater thud than Troy.
For while some of Wilson’s heroes are lone wolves or gadabouts whose ties to home or hearth are gossamer-thin, Troy is an innately social creature, as entangled in the relationships that sustain him as he is restless for the next new thing. A garbage collector who works the back end of the truck with his buddy Bono (Stephen Mckinley Henderson, a Wilson expert who makes the role look easy), Troy is pushing management to let him move to the front of the truck, as it were, and become the city’s first black driver. He also has a wandering eye, despite his still-simmering marriage to Rose. And his brusque, even brutal treatment of his cowed teenage son, Cory (Chris Chalk), suggests that Troy stubbornly views family obligations as just that, no more and no less.
With his smiling good looks and hard-to-hide charm, Denzel Washington easily embodies Troy’s feisty good humor, his ribaldry, his comfort at the center of attention, so much that Wilson’s play almost settles into the rhythms of a good-natured sitcom. Washington seems typecast in these moments: He is a star playing a star, albeit a fading one. But it is in the “fading” part that Washington’s performance is ultimately revelatory. There is the searing monologue about a scrap with his own unloved, unlovable father; there are tall tales about wrestling with Death and the Devil, which grow less and less outlandish as the play rolls on.
Above all, there is the second-act tête-à-tête in which Troy quietly delivers to Rose a bombshell that will destroy their marriage and finally seal his isolation. It is a tough, gasp-worthy moment, in which an unsolicited confession from Troy unleashes a furious response from Rose, which Viola Davis turns into a bitterly effective aria. What’s easy to miss about this scene, with its heavy shudder of melodrama, is that Troy’s hand has not been forced; he has no reason to bring such bad news to his wife apart from his own confused sense of integrity. In its own awful way, it is an act of courage—one that, as it happens, utterly ignores his wife’s feelings, as she does not hesitate to point out, but an act of rare fortitude nonetheless.
This is Troy’s tragedy, and August Wilson’s unflinching point: A 53-year-old man might indeed still grapple for a sense of who he is and what he should be, even at the expense of those he loves. This is not only because he is a flawed male of the species, but because he still lives in a nation that does not recognize or validate his larger-than-life manhood. In part, you could say it is a matter of bad timing; Troy, after all, lives on the cusp of America’s huge civil rights breakthroughs. But even those triumphs have been interlaced with tragedy. When in 1968 Memphis garbage workers went on strike under the defiant slogan, “I Am a Man,” the nation’s greatest civil rights leader rushed to march with them. And we all know how Martin Luther King Jr.’s trip to Memphis ended.