Understanding what’s behind FENCES
An Actor’s Perspective
In preparation for our upcoming performance of August Wilson’s FENCES, (currently being produced by The Steel Magic Theatre Company) I feel compelled to share a deeper understanding of his work I came to during our rehearsal process. In between running acts of the play, Susan McCain (our director) often asks us actors, “What are you feeling right here?” or, “What are your intentions here?” Answering these questions for Troy Maxon (the character I play) and listening to the other actors share what their motivations are, I begin to discover a hidden importance of FENCES now more than ever. FENCES is a portrayal of what it was like to be a black family living in the 1950’s in Pittsburgh, America. There were several challenges facing all Americans at that time but for black families, the added insult of institutionalized racism was a constant force pressing on the already tense moments of everyday life.
The importance of each of our characters’ need to be heard and understood is paramount throughout the production. Cory, Troy’s son, wanting to better himself by going to college on a football scholarship and his father needing him to hold down a job to help ends meet at home were juxtaposing realities that still plague many black families today. Rose’s commitment to providing an avenue for her son Cory to escape the perils of not being ‘educated’ while simultaneously not supporting her husband Troy’s decision to not let him play if he can’t hold down a job also contributed to the tension between Rose and Troy in the play. The lack of employment opportunity led to Troy’s criminal activity and eventual incarceration thus, causing Troy to be absent from his eldest son, Lyons’ life for fifteen years. This absence lead to the resentment they both felt towards one another. Every character wants to be heard and no character ever really listened to the others, which leads to the chaos that unfurls on stage.
Not being able to effectively listen and not being able to admit when you are wrong are two character traits an oppressed people cannot afford to process whilst simultaneously attempting to outgrow a debilitating mindset that has been engineered by the norms of society. The genius of August Wilson’s FENCES is that it presents ‘understanding’ to it’s audience without the need for an audience to be ‘good listeners’. While experiencing FENCES, the audience will be presented the perspective of each character and, whether you agree with the actions of the character or not, you are almost forced to understand their intentions and thus, consider multiple perspectives simultaneously when interpreting the lessons learned.
It is also important to note that August Wilson chose to write FENCES in the authentic dialect of black people from southern regions of the USA who migrated to northern states to find opportunities not afforded to them in the Jim Crow South. Often, the black experience in America produces a dialect that is associated with ignorance and unworthiness. Each character’s sincerity and determination ultimately dispels the cultural biased against ‘how they sound’. And, for many black people who speak fluid “Ebonics”, this play will sound rachetly delicious.