A Family Crisis in Pittsburgh

Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

McCarter Theater
91 University Place
Princeton, N.J.

Troy Maxson is nearly fifty years old and looking back on a mostly wasted life. He spent fifteen years in prison for murder, starred on a Negro baseball league team that went out of business, worked as a sanitation truck driver with not much of a future and seemed to injure members of his family at every turn.

Troy is trying to straighten his life out in 1957 as integration is slowly sweeping through the baseball leagues he played in and his hometown at the same time. Oh, the  steps forward are small ones, but Troy does become the first black truck driver in his city, the major leagues feature several dozen black ballplayers and life for African Americans in the Hill District of Pittsburgh  is a little better.

Now, though, Troy is suffering because his multi-talented teenaged son, with whom he has had a difficult relationship, has a chance to earn a football scholarship at a college and Troy’s extra-marital girlfriend is demanding more of his time. He has to decide, too, if he should sign his loud, unfocused, mentally challenged brother into an institution.

Everything unravels in a sterling revival of Fences, August Wilson’s 1987 prize winning play, one of ten plays he wrote on African American life in the United States, that just opened at the McCarter Theater.

Troy spends a lot of time hitting a baseball that hangs from a tree in his front yard and talking about the good old days of his glamorous younger years in the Negro League. He acknowledges, thlugh,  that his baseball career led to nothing and is jealous that son Cory has considerable skills in football and might go to a famous college because of them. He keeps telling Cory that he has strikes against him, but they are for no good reasons. He sees his best self in Cory, but Cory does not see that. His son sees Troy as a bully and a man who hovers over him, creeping inside his skin. His father’s shadow is suffocating him. He wants to get away not just to play football, but to be free of his dad.

Troy stumbles through the story, making one bad decision after another until his family is on the brink of collapse. His friend, Jim Bono, a friend, knows it and continually tries to offer him good advice, but Troy ignores him. Troy keeps showing a good side that is quickly undermined by a bad side.

Fences is the story of the relationships between members of a black family in Pittsburgh in1957 but it could have been a white family in any city or village in America and the problems the people in the play faced are the same problems we all face today. Fences is a universal and timeless story full of love and emotion, tension and drama. There is a point where Troy defies God with his old baseball bat, certain that in any battle with the Lord he will win. You just shake your head from side to side watching him. Then you remember how defeated he is and how much he needs a victory of some kind, any kind, in his tattered life.

The play’s director, Phylicia Rashad, has added a nice feminine touch to the father/son drama by highlighting the role of Troy’s wife Rose, badly hurt by his affair but determined, no matter what the damage, to keep the family together. Under Rashad’s directorship, she emerges not as an abused woman, but as a strong and powerful woman who is better than the life and the husband she was dealt.

Director Rashad gets wonderful performances by everybody in the cast, especially the powerful and haunted Esau Pritchett as Troy and Portia as Rose. Others who do fine work are Phil McGlaston as Jim Bono, Jared McNeil as friend Lyons, Alvarez Reid as brother Gabe, Chris Myers as Cory and Taylor Dior as the lovable kid Raynell.

The tragedy of Fences is that beyond a few references to the Negro Leagues, and the integration of the major leagues, there is not much history discussed and in 1957 there was a lot of it. President Eisenhower ordered federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to help integrate the public schools there. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was passed creating a Civil Rights Commission and authorizing the Justice Department to investigate racially motivated crimes. A Civil Rights prayer vigil attracted 30,000 people to Washington, D.C. In the previous year, the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott was a great success; black churches were bombed in the South. The Soviets launched the first space satellite, Sputnik, kicking off the space race with the United States. Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula, the British tested a hydrogen bomb and the U.S. conducted its first underground nuclear test.  None of those events were touched upon in the play and if they were, that history could have been a marvelous backdrop to Fences and made the story even more poignant than it is. It is just not credible that a black family in 1957 did not talk about the forced integration of schools in Little Rock, and at great length.

Although it is fine play, Fences is an historical play without much history.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the McCarter Theater and the Long Wharf Theater, Scenic Design: John Iacovelli, Costumes: Esosa, Lighting: Xavier Pierce, Sound: John Gromada. The play is directed by Phylicia Rashad. Runs until February 16.

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