Stage To Screen: Fences

Playbill

Our first Stage To Screen of 2022! Originally I was going to write about The Sign of the Cross because it has an interesting backstory, but at the last minute I decided to switch to Fences because I bought the Blu-ray with some of my Christmas money and I found it very compelling.

Fences was written by August Wilson and follows the story of a black family in 1950s Pittsburgh, starting in 1957 and ending just after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It’s often summarized as a conflict between rubbish hauler dad and former baseball player Troy Maxson and son Cory, who has an opportunity for a football scholarship. Troy would prefer Cory play baseball and can’t understand why Cory quit his job at the A&P. Caught in the middle is mom Rose, who is a patient and loving wife until she learns Troy fathered a love child with another woman.

August Wilson. (August Wilson House)

Most of the action takes place in the backyard of their house in the Hill District, where Troy is forever working to put up a fence. Not a lot of visitors come through the alley to visit, except for Troy’s brother, Gabe, who has PTSD and other mental problems after suffering a head injury during World War Two. He’s constantly fighting off hellhounds and waiting for St. Peter to open up the pearly gates.

Also in attendance is Jim Bono, Troy’s co-worker, fellow former inmate (yeah, Troy did time for stealing), and an affable, dependable soul who stands by Troy in that he doesn’t give up on him and encourages him to be his best self.

August Wilson’s birthplace, 1727 Bedford Avenue in Pittsburgh, where he lived from 1945 until 1958. It was recently restored and turned into an arts center. (Google Maps)

Finally, there’s Lyons, Troy’s son from a previous relationship. He’s a musician, but he constantly asks Troy for money, which, fortunately, he always pays back.

The play isn’t solely about Troy’s aspirations for his younger son; in fact, the baseball vs. football conflict is a triggering subject. Troy prides himself on what he thinks is his ability to cheat death or at least hold it at bay, but in the end the bell will toll. The world is progressing; things are changing for everyone of every color. And all the while the fence is there, waiting to be built, a silent sentry against progress.

James Earl Jones, Mary Alice, and Ray Aranha in the 1987 production. (Playbill)

Fences isn’t technically autobiographical, but it was still personal to Wilson, who was born in Pittsburgh to a German immigrant father, Fredrick Kittel and an African American mother, Daisy Wilson. Wilson’s dad wasn’t present in his life, and probably not just because Wilson’s parents divorced, so it’s pretty safe to say Wilson and Kittel may not have had much of a relationship, or at least not a positive one.

Wilson showed a talent for writing early on; in fact, he was suspended from school at sixteen because an essay he wrote was so well-done his teachers thought he was plagiarizing. Wilson begged to come back, but no one would take him seriously, so he dropped out and studied on his own, earning his high school diploma at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Denzel Washington, Viola Davis and Chris Chalke in the 2010 revival. (Playbill)

Writers are always told to write what they know, and Wilson certainly did so in his plays. He’s most famous for his Pittsburgh Nine, which are all set in the Hill District, each in a different decade.

Fences was his third such play, and originally ran on Broadway from March 26 until June 26, 1987, starring James Earl Jones as Troy, Mary Alice as Rose, and Ray Aranha as Jim. A highly successful revival starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis came about in 2010 and ran for fifty-five performances. Both times the play won armloads of awards, including Tonys for Washington, Davis, and Jones, and a Pulitzer for Wilson.

Wikipedia

When it came to bringing the play to the screen, director Denzel Washington knew what Wilson would want to see in a film version because Wilson adapted Fences for the screen himself, with a slight assist from Tony Kushner. Washington not only did the usual thing of taking the play outside (in this case, outside of the backyard), but he had the whole movie filmed in the Hill District, where, amazingly enough, there were still remnants of 1950s architecture because of a series of failed revitalization efforts. If Wilson had lived to see it, he would have probably been very happy, since the Hill District figured so largely in his body of work.

809 Anaheim Street stood in for the Maxson house, and movie magic filled in the blanks. It looks completely different nowadays, of course, but remnants still linger.

809 Anaheim Street in Pittsburgh was the Maxson house in the film. It’s a private residence, so please do not disturb the occupants. (Google Maps)

When I watched Fences I couldn’t bring myself to jump straight into writing about it because I wanted to mull it over. It’s an incredible film; Washington in particular works the material with a rat-a-tat-tat intensity. He’s ably matched by the rest of the cast, most of whom played opposite him in the Broadway revival, but Fences is Troy’s world and the rest of the characters just live in it.

I think the reason I had to digest things first is that the story initially confused me. I didn’t expect it to be as universal as it is. Even though it’s about a black family, it’s not as focused on race relations as the media generally portrays it. I found myself relating to them and seeing my own experiences in theirs. I know what it’s like to be caught in the middle, to weigh trust, and to use caution when someone runs hot and cold.

Roger Ebert

The movie is pretty visceral in its dialogue and reactions, too, and there’s no attempt to shine anything up. When the characters cry, they don’t cry pretty–there are honest-to-goodness tears and phlegm dripping. It’s not an easy watch, but it does invest itself in the characters and make us care about them.

Unusually, the movie and play don’t cast judgement on its star figure, Troy. We see relationships alter, we see Troy facing consequences for his actions, at least in the immediate sense, but he doesn’t face judgement. If there’s a gap in the timeline, there’s very little exposition filling in the blanks.

Saint Cloud Times

This is where Wilson’s universality theme comes in. Nothing has to be justified because we all face the same questions. There are rough times, but there are also times that make it all worth it. If we do our best and live the best we can, life resolves itself, one way or another. As Lyons tells Cory at the end of the play, “You gotta take the crooked with the straight.”

Fences might not be an easy watch, but I want to go back to it soon. There are depths and layers to August Wilson’s writing that need studying, and I’m interested in looking more deeply into his life and work.

Variety

Got an announcement coming up in a few days, and it’s of the, shall we say, shameful variety. Those of you who have been around Taking Up Room for a while might know what I’m talking about. For all you newcomers, though, well, you’re in for a treat. Thanks for reading, all, and see you Saturday…


Fences is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon. The original play is also available.

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