I imagine that one of the greatest playwrights would’ve celebrated with the rest of us as he watched the adaption of his play; Fences come to life on screen. August Wilson would’ve been pleased.
Denzel Washington masterfully directs and portrays Troy Maxson, the once great baseball player who was considered too old once the major leagues began admitting black athletes. The story of the middle-aged, frustrated man who has missed his place in time is a common American narrative that connects to the African American experience as champions who have always had to navigate successfully through systemic racism and oppression throughout history. Viola Davis plays a riveting role as his dutiful wife Rose Maxson who stands by Troy as she watches him become the hardened shell of an embittered sanitation worker who searches to find traces of his former self as he attempts to escape from the frustration and mendacity of a less than mediocre life in 1950s Pittsburgh. Viola Davis captures Rose’s years of dedication, frustration, and anger with a quiet and sometimes snot-filled stunning performance that comes from a real actor who channels deep emotions with such connection to the audience that you almost forget it’s onscreen and not live.
And then there is the teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo), whose promising football career reminds Troy of his missed opportunities, which spirals into a jealous rage of intolerance that is unforgiven of youth pride with hopeful new directions that remains a push-pull reality between the old and new generation of today. The sub-characters help move the family’s journey through time as Troy’s other son, a talented ne’er-do-well by a previous marriage who continues to come around on Troy’s payday; and younger brother Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), whose head traumas have rendered him emotionally delayed. Gabriel provides a spiritual lens that is forgiving and redemptive.
Troy’s relationship with his old buddy Bono (Stephen Henderson), is a joy to watch as these men go back-n-forth with lies and exaggerated stories from the past between pints of gin after a long hard day on the garbage truck. The humor is an unapologetically, old-school black vernacular that embraces the tradition of southern storytelling or folklore.
Like many of Wilson’s plays, Fences confronts racial issues: Troy’s frustrations over employment discrimination at work, and the fact that he believed race, not age was the primary factor that prevented him from becoming a professional baseball player. However, he takes on the system in part, by challenging the ongoing racial barrier that has prevented many black garbage collectors from moving up to become drivers, which is less laborious and offers better. He takes on the system in victory, which illustrates the point that though he is a flawed man, he is a champion, if only for his interest.
Fences is part of August Wilson’s cycle of 10 plays, which explores African-American history in 20th century Pittsburgh, where he was raised. “My plays are ultimately about love, honor, duty, betrayal,” Wilson said in an interview in 1996. Denzel and Viola’s superb performances honor the tradition of one of the greatest playwrights of our century, August Wilson.