Having taught “The Piano Lesson” for over fifteen years to ninth graders, I am so happy that August Wilson’s life work , a century of ten plays mirroring African-American life, is getting a wider audience through film. Wilson centers his plays in the Pittsburgh Hill District , each one in a different twentieth-century decade. “Fences” has the Fifties in tow: “The Piano Lesson” the Thirties. Both works won the Pulitzer Prize. All ten of August Wilson’s plays have played on Broadway to high acclaim. Both Denzel Washington and his co-star, Viola Davis, starred in the Broadway 2010 revival of the drama “Fences”. They glow on film in these familiar powerhouse roles.
Denzel Washington produces, directs, and stars in the film “Fences”. Like the self-proclaimed August Wilson, Denzel Washington seems to be a “cultural nationalist”, one who uses story to raise consciousness. (He has promised to oversee the filming of all ten of Wilson’s plays.) The consciousness raised on screen begins with our trash man, Troy Maxson, and ends with his death, much in the same way Arthur Miller gave us salesman Willy Loman. Neither Troy nor Willy are perfect, but each is human to the core. Each leaves a lasting mark on his sons. Infidelity and poor self-image and loquaciousness they share.
“Fences” is a filmed play with slim settings and heavy dialogue. Troy rarely ceases his talk. He is a dreamer and exaggerates stories where he has fought off the grim reaper. He has missed being inducted into the Major Leagues, and he is beleaguered at work. He and his wife Rose ( Viola Davis ) seem stuck with their lot. He is in his fifties without a ” pot to piss in, or a window to throw it out of”.
The soft brown and blue palette of each scene renders garments clothespinned to the line, lunch pails packed and carried, and a small backyard that Rose wants fenced. Details like the Jesus plate over the kitchen sink and the tethered baseball hanging from the backyard tree establish this couple’s individual focus. One in the past, the other in the future.
Corey, ( Jovan Adepo) their high-school-aged son, is being recruited by college football coaches. His coming-of-age tale includes striking out with his father over his own ambitions.
Baseball metaphors permeate the emotional fencing this fractious family lunges toward. When Troy confesses he has fathered another child, he tries to simplify his betrayal to Rose. ” I saw this gal~I thought, maybe I’d be able to steal second.” Viola Davis steals this scene in her pained fury. Somehow her pragmatism, forgiveness, and understanding are grown from her rage. ” Eighteen years, and you come to this.” quietly understates his betrayal.
Troy’s longtime friend, Bono (Stephen Henderson), is worried about what his friend may lose: ” What is you going to do when Rose finds out? ” When it becomes clear that Troy has not considered anyone else, their friendship weakens. Events spiral further downward when Troy’s brother Gabe ( Mykelti Williamson) is institutionalized and his government allowance is used to pay Troy’s bills. Williamson plays this brain-damaged war veteran beautifully. The hell hounds that he hears are put to rest by his trumpet blow and the clouds parting in Jesus’ rays. Troy seems to be restating: “Death ain’t nothin’ but a fast ball on the outside corner.” while August Wilson tells us what life is all about.