And I feel this way right now, thinking about the death of playwright August Wilson at the all too young age of 60. Please read elsewhere for a full accounting of Wilsons artistic canon and contributions. My knowledge of the dramatic arts would fit comfortably on an index card. I suppose I know Wilson won every award from the Tony to the Pulitzer. I know Wilson wrote each of his plays to represent a decade of the 20th century Black experience in the United States. I know all of this now.
But in 1988 when I saw Fences on Broadway, all I knew was that I was 14 years old and thought going to a play would be as much fun as a shot glass of morphine.
At the time, I was far more interested in [NY Mets Centerfielder] Mookie Wilson than August Wilson. I settled into my seat and assumed what anthropologists call the slouch of the sulking brat, I had no idea that my every conception of theater, sports, and racism was about to be turned on its head.
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 familys 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, breathing, resentment that he was locked out of Major League Baseballs money and fame
His friend Bono says, Aint but two men ever played baseball as good as you. Thats Babe Ruth and [Negro League legend] Josh Gibson. Thems the only two men ever hit more home runs than you. Troy responds by saying, What it ever get me? Aint 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. Man batting .269 and playing right field for the Yankees!
I saw Josh Gibsons daughter yesterday, she walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet. Now I bet you Selkirks daughter aint walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet! I bet you that!
As Cory exits, choking back tears, Rose, asks, Why dont you let that boy go ahead and play football.
Troy? Aint no harm in that. Hes just trying to be like you with the sports.
I dont want him to be like me!" Troy answers in a rage. "I want him to move as far away from my life as he can get. You the only decent thing that ever happened to me. I wish him that. But I dont wish a thing else from my life. I decided seventeen years ago that boy wasnt getting involved in no sports. Not after what they did to me in the sports.
Eventually Troy, an absolute black hole of bitterness, almost swallows the Maxson family whole, pushing away his wife, child and friends. Troy cant overcome the contradiction in his life: the journey from superstar to picking up trash for nickels and dimes. He cant stand the thought of Cory getting abused by the athletic industrial complex in the same way. But he also cant stand the thought of Cory succeeding where he failed just because he happened to be born "twenty years too early." He also cheats on his wife Rose because he hates the idea that she could love him for who he is and that she is the best he could do, describing his marriage to her as "living for eighteen years on first base."
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 or clear the fences is derived from this. Troy, who could clear the fences with ease on the field, feels trapped by them in his life. 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 plays 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.
I can see this now. But in 1988, all I saw was that sports were not all fun and games: that they could invoke a kind of permanent howl of pain, especially when the level playing field proved for many to be anything but. I also saw that there was blood on the batting gloves of Major League Baseball whose stains were never discussed on NBCs Game of the Week.
August Wilson gave me - and countless others this gift of elemental insight. He challenged my conceptions of sports, the Black athletic experience, and how to understand these two aspects so central to our popular culture. We should weep for August Wilson, his family and friends. But we should also weep for every play that wont 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.
Dave Zirin's new book "What's My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States" is published by Haymarket Books. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org