Karl Lindholm: ‘Fences’ shows how ‘deprivation of possibility’ mars a game and its players
“Ain’t but two men ever played baseball as good as you. That’s Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson.”
That’s Jim Bono, the best friend of Troy Maxson, the protagonist of August Wilson’s play “Fences” referring to Troy’s stature in baseball’s Negro leagues.
“Fences” is set in 1957 when Troy was 53 years old, 10 years after Jackie Robinson’s integration of baseball at its highest level, after 60 years excluding black athletes.
When Troy’s baseball career ended, he became a garbageman in order to support his wife Rose and son Cory, a job he has held for 18 years as the play opens.
“Fences” was first performed on Broadway in 1983 with James Earl Jones as Troy; it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1987.
“Fences” has now, finally, been made into a movie, released just last month, with Denzel Washington both directing and starring as Troy. Denzel is excellent in the role — and Viola Davis as Rose is magnificent.
The timing of the film’s release is perfect for me, as I am teaching a Winter Term course at Middlebury College, “Segregation in America: Baseball’s Negro League.”
I have been fortunate enough to teach two different baseball classes in the American Studies curriculum at Middlebury — and have included “Fences,” and a consideration of baseball’s segregation, centrally in both classes.
“Fences” is the sixth play in Wilson’s ambitious 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, which depicts dramatically African-American life from each decade in the Twentieth Century. Wilson finished his last play just months before his death in 2005 at age 60.
Wilson chose a Negro league player, a black baseball player, to dramatize the 1950s. In a note at the beginning of the play, Wilson describes 1957 as a time “when the hot winds of change that would make the Sixties a turbulent, racing, dangerous, and provocative decade had not yet begun to blow full.”
For those who want a symbolic retelling of the Jackie Robinson story — the mythic account of a heroic black figure confronting bigotry and discrimination, along with the crucial patronage of a white ally willing to buck the racist status quo … well, look elsewhere (maybe go see the movie “Hidden Figures,” an inspiring account indeed).
Wilson explained he wanted to make Troy “a hero of the community, definitely deserving of an opportunity to play in the major leagues and never had the opportunity to do so … There had to be somebody next to Josh (Gibson), the second-best home run hitter.”
Wilson wanted to show how “the deprivation of possibility has an effect on a person’s life and has an effect on how they deal with their family.”
Like so many other Negro league players, Troy was born too early to ply his ample skills in the white Major Leagues. Brutalized by his sharecropper father, he made his way north to Pittsburgh, like so many others in the Great Migration, and spent time in prison, where he learned to play ball.
Troy Maxson is a slugger, a big man with big flaws. Bound to the past, his past, he is abusive to his son, Cory. In 1957, Troy cannot imagine a future that will provide the opportunities for Cory that he was denied.
We live in the present; we know the past and learn from it; we cannot know the future for certain. When Rose and Bono, his friend from prison, observe, “Times have changed, Troy. You just come along too early,” Troy remonstrates bitterly:
“There ought not never have been no time called too early! I’m talking about if you could play ball then they ought to have let you play. Don’t care what color you were. Come telling me I come along too early.”
The language of baseball infuses the play. “Death,” Troy pronounces with characteristic bravado, “ain’t nuthin but a fastball on the outside corner. And you know what I’ll do to that!”
Troy is an adulterer, who fathers a child with another woman. When he attempts to explain to Rose how it could be that he’s “gonna be a daddy,” he employs a baseball analogy:
“You born with two strikes on you before you come to the plate. You got to guard it closely. You can’t afford a call strike. If you going down … You going down swinging … everything lined up against you. What you gonna do. 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.
“And I got to thinking that if I tried … I just might be able to steal second. Do you understand after 18 years I wanted to steal second?”
In the play’s most powerful moment, Rose explodes, “We’re not talking about baseball! … I been standing with you! I been right here with you, Troy. I got a life too!”
Troy was a home run hitter, a Negro league star; after games he had “200 people around just waiting to shake his hand.” He bunted, played it safe, but was caught stealing second.
“Fences” is not a play about baseball, it’s a play about a baseball player. Do go see the movie, a worthy interpretation of a powerful drama about the “deprivation of possibility” — and its consequences.
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