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Fences

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Sister Helena Burns, FSP

 

In my humble opinion, good plays will make good film-plays – even if not given the full film treatment. Bad plays ... well, you get the picture. "Fences" is a good play.

Denzel Washington's Oscar-nominated film is an adaptation of a Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1983 August Wilson play. Washington directs and acts in this quotidian, small-town, seemingly small-stuff character study. Set in 1950's Pittsburgh, Washington's character, Troy, is a garbage man. He's a complicated mix of a gifted raconteur, a complaining curmudgeon and a would-have-been baseball player. We learn about the sad circumstances of his upbringing midway through the film. He's married to the lovely Rose (the splendid Viola Davis), his second wife.

I feel that a play/film of this nature, quality and sensibility couldn't be written today (Wilson was born in 1945). We have lost so much of the meaning of man/woman, husband/wife, the indissolubility of marriage – as well as the project of modernity and the American Dream. Although "Fences" is ostensibly about a subpar family life – due to Troy's bitterness and blaming everyone but himself – it is also hopeful; if we "take the crookeds with the straights," if we accept what life pitches at us and make the absolute best of it. However, is there a subtle apologia here for men not holding up their end of – not a bargain or a deal or a contract – but a relationship: namely, marriage? Or is this the playwright's forgiveness paean to his own father?

Although we can sympathize with Troy, at a certain point there are no excuses for his excuses. How he treats his wife and his two sons isn't right, but sadly typical and realistic, too. Women, wives and mothers are portrayed as the long-suffering, saintly creatures they are (or rather, were): the glue, the mortar holding everything together. I couldn't help thinking that in a few short years, that would all come crashing down and the Women's Movement would declare: Enough! (Of course, these dysfunctional male-female double standard behavioral patterns are not completely erased even today--where the woman is expected to and does hold the moral high ground while the man is his own arbiter of rectitude.)

"Fences," like many other plays-cum-films, the screen adaptation has not changed the hyper-real dialogue much, and it downplays the visual – except for faces and verbal interaction. Instead, it showcases Washington the stage actor. The question simply is: Are you OK with plays turned into films pretty much as they are? The mini-speeches are long. The settings are few and almost entirely domestic. However, the camera angles do make it feel like more of a cinematic experience.

Collectively, plays – like TV – are a talking medium: a series of monologues – rich, crafted dialogue and storytelling linked together by subtle action-shifts (often occurring offstage). When "Fences" begins, we are treated to Troy at the top of his game, chattering up a storm, with frequent references to the inequities "Negroes" routinely endure from "the white man." We feel there may be some confrontation, some terrible injustice around the corner. We feel a tension boiling. But nothing so easy is in the cards. Troy must confront himself. Troy must have the honesty and courage to confront himself. Will he ever?

And yet, Rose's impassioned and accurate "marriage diatribe" blows time-bound thinking and mores out of the water. She brilliantly, viscerally outlines the eternal, "perennial gift" (St. John Paul 2) that marriage is and has always been. She skeletally describes its elevated dignity, which will elevate all who fully participate in it. Not only does Rose comprehend – through experience and the practice of virtue – what the heart of matrimony is (love, duty, sacrifice, keeping one's word, modifying dreams and expectations, self-donation, honoring vows, cleaving to one person, giving one's best, meeting life's demands), she also understands what children need; what children are; and how our personal identities are formed: "We can't be other than what we are," meaning the raw material, our parentage, our childhoods, our families, our siblings, our formative experiences. But Rose also knew that these defining touchstones are not meant to fatalistically limit us. We can always reach for the more that's right in front of us.