I saw the movie Fences recently while flying over the Atlantic. It struck more than a single nerve. JAG Productions is bringing Fences back to the stage in late April and early May. Whether or not you have seen the performance by Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, and the rest of the film cast, you will want to see Fences live at the Woodstock Town Hall Theater.
I grew up in Pittsburgh, but not in the Hill District, the locale of Fences and many of the other works of playwright August Wilson that depict life in this African-American Pittsburgh neighborhood. I lived in a white working class section of the North Side. In the 1950s and 60s, I knew little about the Hill District except that the much adored Pittsburgh Pirate Wilver "Willie" Stargell owned a chicken restaurant there. (When he hit a home run, which we all rooted for, everyone eating in the restaurant at that moment won a free meal. This informal method of customer relations was called "Chicken on the Hill with Will," a phrase coined by sports announcer Bob Prince.) I was discouraged from knowing anything more about the Hill District. Pittsburgh was a city of neighborhoods--often racially and ethnically identified--where people kept close to home.
That was really too bad. To be sure, people in the Hill District and in my neighborhood were not living identical lives. Racism and racial segregation made certain of that. While viewing Fences, however, what struck me was how deeply familiar much of it was. Some were simple similarities to the look and dynamics of the film--my concrete backyard on Wilson Avenue, my mother hugging the kitchen and forever fixing people plates of food, including homemade biscuits. There was alcohol for the adults that seemed to make things more fun until it didn't. But it was my father's similarities to Troy Maxson that caught my mental if not physical breath, and caused me--more than a decade after his death--to see a part of my dad more clearly.
Unlike Maxson, my father was not a former baseball player, now sanitation worker, with Maxson's particular resentment of unfairly lost opportunities. He was in fact a laborer in the enormous downtown non-air conditioned post office, sorting and heaving packages, for his working adult life. But he bore two similarities to Wilson's protoganist: 1) He was always conscious of and resented the general disregard shown toward working-class people in the US, often referring to himself by comparison to others as "just a workin' stiff." And he was proud to be one. 2) My father shared Maxson's masculine pride in providing for his family. In the midst of, and often in spite of, everything else, putting a roof over our heads and food on our table were his reasons for waking up and going to a job he never liked. Being a workin' stiff was okay if you could do that--be the provider. Which explains my never-quite-fully-understood-realization of the immensity of his loss when, at 42, he became disabled and was never able to work again. He stayed with us, continued to tell his funny stories, but a part of him closed off after that, and his bitterness, which was probably fear and displacement and the incongruity of being a workin' stiff without a job, would break through.
So August Wilson brings to the page, and the stage (and later the movie), a play about a black family that says much about race, and more. It tells a story of 1950s and 60s era men for whom disappointment and buried anger cast long and impenetrable shadows on their own lives and those of their families. Wilson's Troy Maxson is an exquisitely drawn portrait, and for me, a powerful glimpse of my own dad.
JAG Productions is bringing in actors with star power, including Brian Anthony Wilson (HBO's The Wire) as Troy and Danielle Lee Greaves (veteran Broadway actor) as Rose. Fences will run from April 27 to May 7 at the Town Hall Theater in Woodstock VT. JAG Productions will be showing a documentary about August Wilson, The Ground On Which I Stand, at the Billings Farm and Museum on April 22.
For more information, about Fences and the documentary, see JAG Productions' website or call 802-332-3270.
(Featured photo of the cast, above, is used with permission of JAG Productions.)
Susan B. Apel, writer, ArtfulEdge