The Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences opened on Broadway this spring and has proved a smash hit with critics and at the box office. It's about a loud, difficult, charming man who both loves and antagonizes those closest to him, the people he cares most about in the world. The star, James Earl Jones, portrays Troy Maxson, a burly black garbage-man in his 50's, who lives in a city like Pittsburgh and talks repeatedly of the responsibilities he has to his wife, his sons and his brain-damaged brother. Maxson is a hero, but not an unblemished one. He is both true to his word and deceitful, loving and destructive, pleased with his accomplishments and frustrated by his failures, a helpful and damaging husband, father and friend. The complex, subtle play, written by August Wilson and directed by Lloyd Richards, seems likely to become a classic staple of American drama.
Throughout the performance, references to sports snap and crackle, accenting the conflict, pointing up the drama. The time is the mid-1950s, and Maxson is a former star of Negro league baseball, a man who hit home runs off Satchel Paige. His career was ending when Jackie Robinson broke organized baseball's ban on black players, and he never got a chance to play in the big leagues. In the front yard of the small house that he owns, he keeps a ball hanging by a string from a tree, and a bat is always nearby. His teenage son is a high school football star whose chance for a college football scholarship is shot down by Maxson, ostensibly because he feels a black athlete has no real chance for success in a white man's world, but possibly, too, because of his own jealousy of the boy's rapid advance toward manhood and independence.
Talk of baseball threads through the play, and if it is not the major theme, it nonetheless sounds steadily in the background. The crux of the drama—Maxson's unfaithfulness to the wife he loves dearly—is explained in baseball idiom; he tells his wife that marrying her, buying the house, holding a steady job and taking care of his family all these years meant that he had gotten to first base in life—but no farther. The woman, the other woman, was inviting him to steal second, to see how far he could go, how far he could break through the fences that keep him in his place. The symbolism is not that blatantly obvious in playwright Wilson's skillful delineation of this complex character, but it is there.
Maxson's resentment at not getting to play major league ball is a repetitive plaint. His best friend rebuts him at one point by saying there are lots, of blacks playing in the majors now and that he just "come along too early." Maxson reacts with angry logic: "Don't come telling me I come along too early. If you could play, then they ought to have let you play." He has a parallel argument at his job. He complains (successfully) that the whites drive the garbage truck while the blacks work at the back; everybody, he says, ought to get the chance to drive the truck.
June 7, 1987
These outbursts against racism do not dominate the play but pulsate below the surface, shaping and influencing but not necessarily creating the character of Troy Maxson. Yet his argument, about baseball, about the garbage truck, rings loudly, particularly against the background of the Al Campanis incident. A week or so after Campanis put his foot in his mouth on national TV with his naive remarks about blacks lacking the "necessities" for managerial and front-office jobs in baseball, New York City sportscaster Bill Mazer had a stimulating discussion on the same subject with Henry Aaron and Don Newcombe (major league stars in the 1950s, when Maxson was working on the garbage truck). Aaron and Newcombe were talking about management jobs for blacks, whereas Maxson is talking only about playing the game and driving a truck, but all three are saying essentially the same thing. Not that blacks should be given the chance, but that blacks should be given the same chance, which means the chance to fail as well as succeed.