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Breaking Down Fences

October 21, 2005 | Page 9

PULITZER PRIZE and Tony Award winning playwright AUGUST WILSON died this month, succumbing to liver cancer at the age of 60. Sportswriter DAVE ZIRIN looks at perhaps Wilson's most well-known play, Fences.

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AUGUST WILSON'S Fences takes place in the 1950s and revolves around the larger-than-life personality of Troy Maxson.

Troy is a 53-year-old garbage collector in Pittsburgh, fiercely proud of his ability to put food on his family's table and a humble roof over their head. He is also someone whose life has been deeply scarred by the world of professional sports. Troy was a great Negro League baseball star who looks back on his experience with pride but also with a pulsing resentment that he was locked out of Major League Baseball's money and fame.

His friend Bono says, "Ain't but two men ever played baseball as good as you. That's Babe Ruth and [Negro League legend] Josh Gibson."

Troy responds by saying, "What it ever get me? Ain't got a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. Take that fellow playing right field for the Yankees back then Selkirk. Man batting .269. What kind of sense that make? I was hitting .432 with 37 home runs. I saw Josh Gibson's daughter yesterday, she walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet. Now I bet you Selkirk's daughter ain't walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet! I bet you that!"

Troy was strangled by the Major League color line and wears those scars proudly, but he also beats those around him with his sense of failure. He reserves special abuse for his 17-year-old son, Cory, who has the opportunity to get a college football scholarship.

While everyone else encourages Cory, Troy refuses to sign off on his own son's scholarship. When Cory begs him to change his mind Troy says, "The white man ain't gonna let you get no where with that football. You go on and get your book learning so you can work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars or something, get you a trade. That way you have something can't nobody take away from you. You go on and learn how to put your hands to some good use, besides hauling people's garbage."

His wife Rose asks, "Why don't you let that boy go ahead and play football, Troy? Ain't no harm in that. He's just trying to be like you."

"I don't want him to be like me!" Troy rages. "I want him to move as far away from my life as he can get. I decided 17 years ago that boy wasn't getting involved in no sports. Not after what they did to me."

Eventually Troy, an absolute black hole of bitterness, almost swallows the Maxson family whole. He can't overcome the contradiction in his life: the journey from superstar to picking up trash for nickels and dimes.

He can't stand the thought of Cory getting abused by the athletic-industrial complex in the same way. But he also can't stand the thought of Cory succeeding where he failed--just because he was born "20 years too early."

The title of the play is illustrative of Wilson's brilliance. Troy spends considerable time on stage building a fence for their modest home at the constant prodding of Rose. Her desire to see it built becomes an openly symbolic issue that the characters comment on with insight and sadness that rescues it from being a ham-handed symbolic device.

His friend Bono remarks that "Some people build fences to keep people out. Others build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold onto you all. She loves you." Troy also makes direct reference to the fence. To him, it's the last line of defense against the hellhounds nipping at his heels.

But the word "fences" recalls something else, never mentioned explicitly in the play. "Fences" is baseball slang for the outfield wall that must be cleared for a home run. The phrase "swing for the fences" is derived from this.

Sports, which held the promise of escape, instead fenced him in and swallowed him whole and he attempts to take his family with him. In the play's final scenes, we see that his family has more strength than Troy ever gave them credit for--strength to withstand even his pull toward self-destruction.

Fences shows that sports are not all fun and games: that they could invoke a permanent howl of pain, especially when the "level playing field" proved for many to be anything but.

August Wilson gave me--and countless others--this gift of elemental insight. He challenged our every conception of sports, racism and the Black athletic experience. We should weep for August Wilson, his family and friends. But we should also weep for every play that won't be written, every Troy Maxson never brought to life, every lesson that will go untaught and by extension unlearned.

Thank goodness we can cherish the body of work he left us. Thank goodness for August Wilson.

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