Author: MacKillop, James
Date published: May 12, 2010
Journal code: SYNT
A League of Its Own
A Negro ex-baseball player in 1957 Pittsburgh provides the emotional power for Syracuse Stage's Fences
ugust Wilson's Fences is one of a handful of dramas that Syracuse Stage has produced twice. The shortest explanation is that the Claude Purdy version (March 1991) was almost two decades ago, and that current producing artistic director Tim Bond has pledged to present all 10 Wilson dramas set in each decade of the 20th century. Another, more complex reason, is related to why Denzel Washington is appearing concurrently in a New York City revival you may have read about. We have all been praising Fences so much it's time to look at again, to see if we mean what we say.
"We" includes legions of American literature teachers, both high school and college, who have been declaring the play as required reading for more than a decade. Perhaps a million term papers have been written about Fences, many of them comparing it with Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, another family tragedy with father-son conflict.
Yet student writers deftly gloss over some of the play's easier puzzles, such as why it is set in 1957. That year was significant to playwright Wilson because slugger Hank Aaron led the Milwaukee Braves to a World Series victory, the first black player to achieve such a triumph. And even though the name of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was beginning to appear in the newspapers, the civil rights movement would not be launched for another three years. Jim Crow was still present for some and a fresh memory for others.
Students, similarly, have little difficulty with the freshman-level conceits and devices that almost imply we are dealing as much with symbols as flesh-and-blood people. "Troy" is still a plausible given name for an African-American man, but it's also a heroic ruin. The family name "Maxson" makes wordplay on "Mason" and "Dixon." The best friend is Bono, the wife Rose, the war-damaged brother carrying a trumpet is Gabriel, and so on. Recognizing all these may delight, but they are hardly what compel us.
Turning to Fences on the stage, as opposed to the page, one is struck by how operatic it is, with great, aria-like poetic speeches flush with emotion. True, these are in a kind of stylized black English that many teachers were trying to exterminate just a short time ago. But the lines jolt you in the theater, and you can quote them later even without taking notes: "Death ain't nothing but a fastball on the inside straight" or "You got to take the crooked with the straights." Contrast these with passages of another prestige drama of the past 20 years, the two parts of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. There you find short speeches in conversational English, some of it witty. But Kushner does not ask a performer to soar as Wilson does.
The original Troy Maxson was James Earl Jones, perhaps the most celebrated stage baritone of his generation, but he does not own the role. Jones might have been big, especially as a young man, but he was anything but a jock. Notice how terribly he runs, at age 45, in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976). Sacrilegious as it is to say it, John A. Williams in the Syracuse Stage production, co-produced with Seattle Repertory Theatre, looks more the part. Williams' athletic physical presence dominates his good-natured but slight friend Jim Bono (William Hall Jr.) and overpowers the muscular resentful son Cory (Stephen Tyrone Williams).
Then there's Williams' baritone, lined with all the hot tar and broken glass of Pittsburgh streets in the summertime. Even his laughter aches. This is the chosen instrument to tell us of Troy's loss, the anonymity of his baseball records in the marginalized Negro Leagues, his criminal record, his illiteracy and his confinement to the heavy lifting on a garbage truck when he wishes for the softer job of driver.
Playwright Wilson's task is not, however, instruction on the indignities of segregation and Jim Crow, lessons still not known in the Virginia governor's mansion. What Wilson gives us instead is a giant of a man held down, Gulliver-like, by dozens of confinements, not all of them petty, inflicted upon him by his race and class in the 1950s. A serf in Czarist Russia or a Mestizo in colonial Guatemala could have comparable suffering, but theirs is not our story. Troy Maxson's torment is taking place in the Happy Days era of Richie and Fonzie.
Great dramas, however, favor family conflicts over sociology and history. Troy contends with two sons, the older, illegitimately born Lyons (Jose A. Rufino), who might or might not have a future as a jazz musician, and the younger Cory, who plays football and works in the A&P grocery store. Troy suffers the failures of a Victorian patriarch, unable to express the love we know he feels. He distrusts Lyons' art and thinks the young man a freeloader. Worse with Cory, he fears, perhaps with some justice, that the boy cannot look for a career in a sport that is still a white man's game.
The most excruciating scene in Fences, however, unfolds as we learn more of Troy's relationship with his wife of 18 years, Rose (Kim Staunton), the mother of Cory but not of 34-year-old Lyons. The role as written is the most demanding after Troy and reaches over the longest arc. When we first meet Rose we have no hint of her depth, only that she has been Troy's salvation and that he is betraying her, a secret known only to Bono.
In a scene reminiscent of John Proctor's confession in Arthur Miller's The Crucible, Troy must tell her the ugly truth, beginning with childlike but slimy euphemisms. In an audacious thrust to the jugular, Wilson has the mad brother Gabriel interrupt, so that both husband and wife are choked. Rose's later riposte wins loud applause from every wronged woman in the audience. As Gabriel, Craig Alan Edwards cannot enter a scene without commanding it and, fittingly, also speaks last.
Going back to the Arthur Storch days, before 1992, champions of Syracuse Stage have wanted to claim that the best local productions could stand comparison with regional theaters everywhere. Bond's handling of August Wilson's Fences offers the strongest case we are going to hear. While Bond and Williams have freed us of the shadow of James Earl Jones, Syracuse Stage's costume designer for the show, Constanza Romero, August Wilson's widow, is also up for a Tony Award for the costumes in Denzel Washington's concurrent Broadway Fences. Every performance brings the highest precision and evocativeness. And our standards are now also those of Seattle Repertory Theatre.
We cannot be sure, as some have said, that Fences is the greatest American play of the last 25 years, or even the greatest Wilson (some commentators favor Joe Turner's Come and Gone). What is sure is that it brings the passion and immediacy that cannot translate to the screen. You have to be there in person to get it.