Black fathers of the 1950s may have experienced such pain they never said, “I love you,” but at least they supported their children, even those born out of wedlock. Young men today just puff out their chests at how many babies they make, and take a walk.
Sharon Brooks made that real-life argument as she and others at Dixwell’s Stetson Branch Library applied a play’s lessons to their community’s real life.
The spirited discussion Wednesday evening tackled themes in August Wilson’s great play Fences, which opens Nov. 27 at Long Wharf Theatre. It stars Esau Pritchett as Troy Maxson and is directed by Phylicia Rashad.
The theater and staff from the New Haven Free Public Library convened the “community conversation” Wednesday night as part of an initiative called “Page, Stage, Engage. (Click here for a story on the previous conversation on race and real estate occasioned by the Long Wharf’s production of Bruce Norris’s play Clybourne Park back in May.)
The program drew 35 people to the Dixwell Avenue library to discuss how fathers relate to sons. The heart of Fences is protagonist Troy Maxson’s agonized and angry relationship to his sons, as well as the rest of his family.
In the play, set in 1957, Troy Maxson is a talented Negro Leagues baseball player who might have been a pro had there not been discrimination. Troy is now a garbage man. He still has a driving heroic dimension to fight to become the first black man allowed to drive a sanitation truck, not just schlep the garbage. At the same time, he’s so disappointed and embittered he won’t or can’t accept his children for who they are and allow them to live their own lives.
The discussion followed two video clips of portrayals of Wilson’s main character. Click on the video to watch James Earl Jones’ portrayal of Troy from the 1980s.
Click on this video for one by Denzel Washington in 2010.
In both moments, from Act One, Scene Three, we hear Troy’s blistering answer to his son Cory’s question: “How come you ain’t never liked me?”
“Denzel elicits laughter whereas James Earl Jones elicits seriousness,” observed the discussion moderator, professor and former mayoral contender Clifton Graves (pictured). “Men in that era—all men—didn’t talk much about love.”
Niyonu Spann (pictured) said Jones’ portrayal reminded her of her father and uncles. She said their anger came from “out there,” from racism that denied opportunities, humiliated black men, and left them with verbiage to say only that fulfilling obligations—I put food on the table and a roof over your head—is love’s expression. Period.
Sharon Brooks, who heads up “Divas”, Stetson’s all-female book club, said James Earl Jones’ Troy is “ferocious, but in the end [of the scene] he puts his hand on Cory,” his son, in gesture that says he loves him.
“I grew up without a mother. My mother was James Earl Jones,” said Stetson Branch Librarian Diane Brown.
“‘I raised six kids, I went to work at Winchester and never went on welfare,’” Brown paraphrased her mother, now in her 90s, as saying. “I never heard her say ‘I love you.’”
When Brown told her she was having trouble with relationships with other girls at school, her mother told her, in effect: I’m not sending you to school for that. I’m sending you for education.
The discussion Wednesday night turned to the character of Rose, Troy’s wife. Troy cheats on Rose and brings home the baby he’d fathered with a girlfriend. Several women in the Stetson audience acknowledged over the generations that many black women have had to put up with their men’s infidelity.
But they cited a crucial difference from the generation of Fences and today.
“Providing for a family is a sign of being a decent black man” back in the 1950s, said Brooks. They would run around but support the children they sired, she added.
“Now, 50 years later we have young men who feel their manhood consists in creating [but not supporting] lots of kids.It puffs their chest out,” she said.
Graves was at pains to point out that Wilson’s story is about one man and not representative of the wide range of the African-American community.
In New Haven the African-American community is keenly aware of the need to educate and mentor young men in the difference between being male and being a man, Graves said.
He cited the fathering and mentoring programs of the New Haven Family Alliance and groups like Thomas Daniels’ “Fathers Cry Too.”
“Despite his shortcomings, Troy as described by Wilson wants Cory to have self respect, self-esteem, and self love,” said Graves.
Long Wharf Managing Director Josh Borenstein declined to say whether Esau Pritchett’s and Phylicia Rashad’s Troy will be closer to James Earl Jones’s or Denzel Washington’s portrayal.
It will be a third, original representation, Borenstein said.
Long Wharf’s production begins previews the day before Thanksgiving and runs through Decr 22.