Similarly, a fence being built by a Black American worker Troy Maxson to demarcate his yard space is the central symbol in the play Fences by August Wilson recommended by CXC as a set text for study in the CSEC examinations. Several ironies surround the building of this fence in a drama about Blacks in the 1950s at a particular point in the history of the modern USA. It involves several questions of the nature of humanity, and the psychological effects of the black experience in that history and the family; but it also involves divisions, barriers, separation, as well as togetherness, opportunities and the way the building of fences to keep people in also serves to keep them out.
Students and teachers in Guyana have the opportunity to see August Wilson’s Fences on stage since it is now being performed by a touring group of actors who are taking it to different parts of the country. It played in Georgetown and Essequibo Coast last week, and is scheduled to be performed at Lichas Hall in Linden on April 20, at the Lower Corentyne Secondary School April 22, and New Amsterdam Multilateral on April 23, with all performances starting at 12 noon.
It has always been the ideal that the study of drama should also include seeing it acted out on stage, but the reality is that there are attendant difficulties to mounting the productions and doing them competently. Those difficulties, however, are not insurmountable, and such productions ought to happen more often. This one is produced and directed by Godfrey Naughton, with some choreography by Kijana Lewis and set design by Naughton.
The play is set in the USA between 1957 and 1965 in the context of the history of the Blacks up to that time, and presents a pre-civil rights situation as well as the beginnings of opportunities for Blacks. It is built around the character Troy Maxson, a garbage truck driver and former baseball player, who has successfully fought a case against his supervisors who only allowed Blacks to pick up garbage while only Whites were allowed to drive the trucks. Troy has become the first Black driver, thus creating opportunities. The creation of opportunities is one of many themes in the play, but Troy is a tragic hero of the drama, being guilty of many of the ills affecting his family.
He is played by Godfrey Naughton, while Sonia Yarde plays his wife Rose Maxson, who is the compassionate black woman of quiet strength and one of the consciences of the play. Travis Chase, who teaches this play in school, acts the role of Cory Maxson, their teenage son who finds himself in conflict with his father, partly because of his determination to be an American football player. Another teacher, Gerald Gilkes, plays Lyons, Troy’s eldest son who struggles to be a jazz musician and wanders in and out of the play. Clement Stanford acts the role of Jim Bono who is Troy’s best friend, fellow worker on the garbage truck, constant companion, support and chief follower. Gabriel Maxson is Troy’s brother, a war veteran who is mentally unstable due to injury during World War II and played by Linden Jones, while Oceanna Hoppie acts the role of Raynell who is Troy’s young daughter, the result of an affair outside of his marriage.
August Wilson (1945-2005) weaves a drama around these characters in Fences, one of the plays in which he dramatizes the Black experience in the USA. Wilson rose from struggles to educate himself as a teenager to become one of America’s leading playwrights. Like Eugene O’Neill, he had an early period of drifting and hard experience which he used to advantage in his drama later on. But he had academic brilliance and talent and once he entered the theatre, saw immediate success on Broadway in New York. He won several major awards for his plays and had a particularly rich period of achievement between 1987 and 1990 during which his three most acclaimed plays were performed on Broadway.
Fences was Best Play of 1987, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone won Best Play for 1988 and The Piano Lesson was Best Play in 1990. In addition to many other prizes and honours spread throughout his career, he had two Pulitzer Prizes during that same short period, for Fences in 1987 and again for The Piano Lesson in 1990. Fences may be regarded as his greatest achievement and one of the plays in which he focuses on a historical line of the Black struggles in America since emancipation, including the consistent fights against disabling legislation, race, inequality and lack of opportunity.
In this drama, however, Wilson also treats the creation of opportunity and the early movements out of racial oppression in the fifties. Troy was a baseball player in the Black leagues who just missed entry into the Major League because, having contributed to the creation of the opportunities, he was about to retire when Black players finally made the breakthrough to become champions in the Major League. His principled challenge of the system made him the first Black to drive garbage trucks and opened the gate for others. But Troy Maxson’s tragic flaws also emerge in the drama. Ironically, he stubbornly opposes his son Cory’s rising career in football, thus frustrating another opportunity for a talented Black.
This is at the core of the father/son conflicts in the play in addition to being one of its many ironies. It is ironic and symbolic the way Troy uses baseball imagery in his clashes with Cory. Each time he perceives Cory has made a major transgression he calls out “strike one!” and later “strike two!” as he intensifies his threats to expel him from the home. Troy uses the imagery of sport to suppress opportunities for a Black boy after his own career as a Black sportsman helped to create opportunities in a previous generation. But his conflicts with Cory also have to do with his own transgressions and Cory’s function as a conscience of the play.
Gabriel Maxson, in his madness, also dramatizes the opening of gates and creation of opportunities. He imagines himself as the Angel Gabriel blowing his trumpet, destroying ills and opening gates to salvation. The way the war has left him demented is one of Wilson’s comments about the plight of Blacks as pawns in White America’s affairs. He fights for America and ends up wounded, but his injury means he receives financial benefits from the state, which Troy uses to finance the building of his home. Gabriel is thus a victim of the situation in the USA and of his own family, since Troy also, unwittingly, signs him away to the asylum. There are further ironies too, because Cory, after being thrown out of the house by his father, joins the US Marines to fight other wars.
Rose is another victim who suffers and recovers from her husband’s treatment and his infidelity. But she represents humanity and compassion, and is a force that holds the family together. She battles to support Cory against Troy and in the end of the play influences his reconciliation with his father. She becomes a mother to her husband’s ‘outside’ daughter. Rose Maxson is one of the many strong Black women in literature, who is also central to the play in that she was the one who asked Troy to build the fence.
The fence, which gives the play its title, was to keep the family in as a unit within the semblance of their own space within a yard, in a world where Black people had no space. But largely because of Troy’s tragic flaw and errors of judgment, the fence had become an image of keeping family members out. It is the largest symbol in the play as divisions are created and Troy constructs a barrier around himself, alienating him from son and from wife. Importantly, though, the wife’s good sense and compassion are stronger than the created alienation.
Fences ends with symbols of some hope and new beginnings. The new daughter, Raynell, plants a garden of growing plants in that same space within the fence that was previously barren and bare, making a home of it and mending broken fences. There is a semblance of reunion with the return of Cory, Gabriel and others who come together at the end. The dance performed by Gabriel gives a final touch of catharsis. No sound comes from his trumpet when he tries to blow; the play closes with a softer touch than the purging destruction wrought by the Angel Gabriel. The play is worth seeing.