How do you write a play like August Wilson, that great chronicler of the African American experience in the twentieth century, that Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist and poet, that ‘giant figure in American theater’, according to playwright Tony Kushner? You start, it seems, with a line of dialogue. This is Wilson’s own advice, put forward in a talk – appropriately titled ‘How to Write a Play like August Wilson’ – that he gave in 1991. ‘I’ll start with the line, and the more dialogue I write, the better I get to know the characters,’ he explains in the talk. He likens the incremental process of writing a play – listening to the characters, responding to the demands of their dialogue – to the creation of a work of art. Specifically, the work of artist Romare Bearden, whose paintings and collages Wilson long admired. ‘He’s a collagist,’ Wilson said. ‘He pieces things together – I discovered that that’s part of my process, what I do. I piece it all together, and, hopefully, have it make sense, the way a collage would.’
Bearden’s iconic collages created vivid portraits of the lives of mid-century African Americans, through a meeting of bold colours and pieced-together images torn from magazines. Taking notes from the cubism of his friend Picasso, Bearden established a new visual imagery, one which excited Wilson: ‘What I saw was Black life presented on its own terms, on a grand and epic scale’, he wrote of Bearden’s work. The two men never met, although they came close on more than one occasion; once, Wilson admits, ‘he stood outside [Bearden’s home at] 357 Canal Street in silent homage, daring myself to knock on his door.’
Wilson’s plays are a patchwork of multimedia echoes. Collage-like, he assembled influences from art, music and story-telling, explaining to The Paris Review that
[m]y influences have been what I call my four Bs—the primary one being the blues, then Borges, Baraka, and Bearden. From Borges, those wonderful gaucho stories from which I learned that you can be specific as to a time and place and culture and still have the work resonate with the universal themes of love, honor, duty, betrayal, etcetera. From Amiri Baraka I learned that all art is political, though I don’t write political plays. That’s not what I’m about. From Romare Bearden I learned that the fullness and richness of everyday ritual life can be rendered without compromise or sentimentality.
With this broad range of influences, Wilson wove a rich tapestry, documenting the experiences of African American men and women through every decade of the twentieth century in his critically acclaimed ‘Pittsburgh cycle’. Each one in this series of ten plays is set in a different decade, although the characters all largely inhabit the same territory – the city of Pittsburgh, in which Wilson lived and worked for most of his life.
Fences, written in 1983, takes place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1957. It centres on the home of Troy Maxson, a garbage collector, who, through a series of dense, lyrical monologues, tells his colleague Mr Bono, his son Lyons and his wife Rose the circumstances of his life. A fight with his father at the age of fourteen leads Troy to leave his home in the South, walking two hundred miles to reach Mobile in Alabama before travelling north to Pittsburgh. Circumstances prove difficult and Troy finds himself stealing food to feed his new wife and young son. ‘I’ll tell you the truth,’ he goes on. ‘I’m ashamed of it today. But it’s the truth. Went to rob this fellow… pulled out my knife… and he pulled out a gun.’ Later, ‘[t]hey told me I killed him and they put me in the penitentiary and locked me up for fifteen years.’ He describes – in a mesmerising speaking style, tetchy yet poetic – how he went on to meet Rose and had another child with her, a son called Cory.
The central image of the play is that of the fence, which Troy promises he will build around the backyard. In doing so he enlists the help of Cory, who is fearful of his father, and disgusted by him, while yearning for his approval. The fence, which takes month to erect, comes to symbolise the deep and growing rifts that emerge between Troy and the rest of his family, as well as the wider gender and race divisions of the 1950s. As Troy’s infidelities are exposed, the image of the fence takes on a poignant edge. ‘Some people build fences to keep people out,’ Mr Bono remarks, ‘and other people build fences to keep people in.’
Wilson repeatedly referred to Fences as ‘the odd man out’ among his plays; unlike the ensemble pieces that came before it, it is ‘about one individual and everything focuses around him’, he explained in an interview with Bonnie Lyons in 1997. Despite Wilson’s misgivings (Fences was his ‘least favourite’ play, he later said), the character of Troy is a remarkable creation, loving and bitter, a master of the mundane. In the mouth of Troy Maxson, the language of ‘50s Pittsburgh is steeped in figurative imagery, shifting the play from straightforward realism to a striking kind of allegory. ‘All right… Mr. Death,’ he says in one of the play’s most powerful moments. ‘I’m gonna take and build me a fence around this yard. See? I’m gonna build me a fence around what belongs to me. And then I want you to stay on the other side. See? You stay over there until you’re ready for me.’
But how successfully does this claustrophobic domestic drama translate to the screen? Directed by Denzel Washington, with a screenplay by Wilson that ‘got some massaging by Tony Kushner’ (Vanity Fair’s description, not mine), Fences the film takes the 2010 production on Broadway – starring Washington as Troy and Viola Davis as Rose – and relocates it to a small house in Pittsburgh, in and around which most of the action is shot. Washington and Davis are breathtaking in their roles; Davis especially so. Of Rose Maxson, Davis has said in an interview with NPR that ‘you see her at first and she seems to be in the background. She’s making her marriage work — it is working, as far as she’s concerned. And then it gets turned on its head and you see her pain.’ For Davis, Rose represents the ‘complete journey of womanhood.’
I just really wanted to create a portrait of a woman. … You see age has affected her, but you still see the smile; you see a little bit of the lipstick; you see a woman who is not downtrodden. It was very important for me to create an entire and specific portrait of a woman, so by the time everything is taken away, it really is taken away. You really feel the trauma.
There are moments in the film when it feels as though the medium’s potential isn’t being fulfilled, curbed by the limitations of a theatre set. But the energy that Washington, Davis and a talented supporting ensemble bring to the screen is astonishing; viewers will find themselves deeply moved by the pathos of a life lined with fences. Although the ‘odd man out’, Fences stays true to the example Wilson cherished in the work of Bearden: this remarkable play is founded on the ‘fullness and richness of everyday ritual life […] rendered without compromise or sentimentality’.
Fences is in cinemas now.