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Sins of the Father and Baseball
In Fences (2016), Stephen McKinley Henderson, Viola Davis, and Denzel Washington lead an outstanding cast worthy of the Pulitzer that the original production of Fences won, along with every other major award in American theatre-dom.
I’ve carried a paperback of Fences, August Wilson’s 1985 masterpiece of a play, from apartment to apartment since college. There’s a monologue towards the latter half that is, without exaggeration, devastating. A classful of students wept hearing it read, badly no less, by a stage-movement professor. On paper, on the stage, or here, in Denzel Washington’s movie production of Fences, the quality of the conversation mesmerizes, turns on a dime, and scorches. Wilson has an unmatched control of dialogue, family dynamics, social injustice, and historical context. You could stage this play in any language, and it would still hit like a ton of bricks. Baseball backstory be damned.
But an apt backstory it is: Troy (Denzel Washington in the role of Troy, originally played by James Earl Jones) is a garbage man in 1950s Pittsburgh. He was once a talented baseball player in the Negro League but was over 40 years old when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the White majors. His unrealized dream of proving himself in the big show is one of the many injustices he experienced as a Black man growing up and living in America in the early 20th century. His story is tragic, but Fences isn’t about injustice. It’s about how a person comports themself in the face of injustice. It’s an indictment of an unexamined life, a retreat from ideals, and perpetuating generational hardship. When we’re young, we tend to think about the future and its promise. Fences is a play powerful enough to instill what anxious reflections on the past from old age might be like. It’s an omen for anyone with an open heart.
It’s tempting to get into an academic spiel regarding the depth of this work and how incredible it is that Wilson never veers into pure social commentary when the family's pain could easily be explained by such. We live in the age of backstory, after all, but Fences has goals beyond understanding or pointing at the past: it implores us not to become so obsessed with the past or the future that we forget about today and the good that can be done with it.
Because there are no better words to convince someone of the power of Fences than Wilson’s own, here’s that verse that was read to me and a bunch of other theater kids back in 2006. This is Rose, speaking to Troy after Troy insinuates that their life together hasn’t been what he had hoped it would be:
I been standing with you! I been right here with you, Troy. I got a life too. I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot with you. Don't you think I ever wanted other things? Don't you think I had dreams and hopes? What about my life? What about me? Don't you think it ever crossed my mind to want to know other men? That I wanted to lay up somewhere and forget about my responsibilities? That I wanted someone to make me laugh so I could feel good? You not the only one who's got wants and needs. But I held on to you, Troy. I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams . . . and I buried them inside you. I planted a seed and watched and prayed over it. I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn't take me no eighteen years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn't never gonna bloom. But I held on to you, Troy. I held you tighter. You was my husband. I owed you everything I had. Every part of me I could find to give you. And upstairs in that room . . . with the darkness falling in on me . . . I gave everything I had to try and erase the doubt that you wasn't the finest man in the world. And wherever you was going . . I wanted to be there with you. Cause you was my husband. Cause that's the only way I was gonna survive as your wife. You always talking about what you give . . . and what you don't have to give. But you take, too. You take . . . and don't even know nobody's giving!
Written by August Wilson; Directed by Denzel Washington