Drama Review – Fences by August Wilson

Without question, Troy Maxson deserves to be ranked among the most complex protagonists in literature. He’s a blue collar Willy Loman, a bit less crass than Stanley Kowalski, and a family man in the vein of Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad from Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. This character’s intricacies made my reading of August Wilson’s Fences both enriching and quite surprising. I’m shocked that I hadn’t encountered it before.

Maxon presented himself as the very epitome of responsible behavior… at least by his standards. In addition to confronting the racism of the era, he also encountered the challenges of raising a family in 1950’s Pittsburgh. Here’s a sample of an exchange he had with his son.

Troy: (Racial epithet), as long as you in my house, you put that sir on the end of it when you talk to me.

Cory: Yes…sir.

Troy: You eat every day.

Cory: Yessir!

Troy: Got a roof over your head.

Cory: Yessir!

Troy: Got clothes on your back.

Cory: Yessir.

Troy: Why do you think that is?

Cory: Cause of you.

Troy: Aw, hell I know it’s cause of me…but why do you think that is?

Cory: (Hesitant) Cause you like me.

Troy: Like you? I go out every morning…busting my butt…putting up with them crackers every day…cause I like you? You the biggest fool I ever saw. (Pause) It’s my job. It’s my responsibility! You understand that? A man got to take care of his family. (Pages 37 – 38)

The playwright didn’t model this 50’s dad off of Ward Cleaver. Troy’s father didn’t fit that description, either. I enjoyed the way Wilson kept tying in the ‘responsibility’ theme with family.

Troy: Sometimes I wish I hadn’t known my daddy. He ain’t cared nothing about no kids. A kid to him wasn’t nothing. All he wanted was for you to learn how to walk so he could start you to working. When it came time for eating…he ate first. If there was anything left over, that’s what you got. Man would sit down and eat two chickens and give you the wing. (Page 50)

            Did I mention that Troy directed this speech at his son Lyons? He did have a bit of a happy ending to this tale. Here’s Troy’s explanation as to why his father didn’t leave, in spite of his obvious unhappiness working as a sharecropper.

Troy: How he gonna leave with eleven kids? And here he gonna go? He ain’t knew how to do nothing but farm. No, he was trapped and I think he knew it. But I’ll say this for him…he felt a responsibility toward us. Maybe he ain’t treated us the way I felt he should have…but without that responsibility he could have walked off and left us…made his own way. (Page 51)

Troy harbored the following minatory thoughts on his dad. He delivered them after recollecting a brutal beating he suffered at his father’s hands.

Troy:…”Part of that cutting down was when I got to the place where I could feel him kicking in my blood and knew that the only thing that separated us was a matter of a few years. (Page 53)

            Wilson fully fleshed-out his protagonist’s values. He best illustrated them in the following discussion between Troy and his best-friend Bono. I really liked the way the playwright crafted this exchange. Reminiscent of the great Harold Pinter, an ostensibly trivial conversation developed into a crucial plot point.

Bono: Rose is a good woman, Troy.

Troy: Hell, (racial epithet), I know she a good woman. I been married to her for eighteen years. What you got on you mind, Bono?

Bono: I just say she a good woman. Just like I say anything. I ain’t got to have nothing on my mind.

Troy: You just gonna say she a good woman and leave it hanging out there like that? Why you telling me she a good woman?

Bono: She loves you, Troy. Rose loves you.

Troy: You saying I don’t measure up? That’s what you trying to say. I don’t measure up cause I’m seeing this other gal. I know what you trying to say. (Pages 62- 63)

The playwright did an exceptional job tying the whole story together at the end. The following dialogue occurred between Troy’s wife and their son.

Rose: You just like him. You got him in you good.

Corey: Don’t tell me that Mama.

Rose: You Troy Maxson all over again.

Corey: I don’t want to be Troy Maxson. I want to be me.

Rose: You can’t be nobody but who you are, Corey. (Page 97)

I’m hoping to see Fences performed someday. Troy Maxson is such a fascinating character. I’d enjoy the opportunity of watching a master thespian animate him. For now, I’ll have to settle for August Wilson’s poetic portray of him in words. That’s pretty good consolation.