As soon as I got home from August Wilson’s Fences under the direction of Lou Bellamy at the Penumbra, I went into the living room and opened up my Baseball Encyclopedia.
George Selkirk. Nickname: "Twinkletoes." Born: Jan. 4, 1908, Huntsville, Ontario. Died: Jan. 19, 1987 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Played right field for the Yankees from 1934 until 1942. Lifetime average of .290.
In the first act of Fences, the protagonist, Troy Maxon, a fifty-something former Negro Leagues baseball player, now working as a garbageman for a living, has just come home on a Friday—pay day—to split a fifth of gin with his buddy Bono. They’re both on Troy’s front porch in Pittsburgh. His wife, Rose, comes out to laugh with the two men. Right away,Troy starts bitching about George Selkirk.
“What’s that fellow they had playing right field for the Yankees back then?” Troy asks his buddy.
Like a woman who’s heard this argument many times before, Rose interrupts, “Selkirk?”
“Selkirk! Man batting .269, understand? .269. What kind of sense that make? I was hitting .432 with thirty-seven home runs! Man batting .269 and playing right field for the Yankees!”
When Rose tries to soothe her husband by explaining that there’s a lot of colored folks playing baseball now, that “folks had to wait for Jackie Robinson” to break the color barrier in 1947 (ten years before this scene takes place), Troy erupts again.
“I done seen a hundred niggers play baseball better than Jackie Robinson! Hell, I know some teams Jackie Robinson couldn’t even make! What you talking about Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson wasn’t nobody. I’m talking about if you could play ball then they ought to have let you play.”
It’s a provocative set-up—Wilson has the resentful, damaged Troy dismiss Jackie Robinson, the great savior of Major League Baseball's brand, right at the top. Instead, Wilson chooses to focus on a more obscure symbol as a legacy of the sick system of major league inequality that was in place before (and according to Troy, well after) Jackie broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Wilson name drops George Selkirk, an average player playing alongside Joe DiMaggio on all those great Yankee teams of the thirties. Selkirk is served up as the generic, white obstruction of prodigious Negro league talents like Josh Gibson and Troy Maxon. (Troy is fictitious, of course, but have you ever heard any Josh Gibson Negro League stories? He might as well have been fictitious too.) It's a provocative enough detail to get a geeky fantasy baseball player like me, a guy who knows his Ken Burns and his WP Kinsella, to run home and crack his Baseball Encyclopedia. But August Wilson’s set-up is not why Fences is the best drama about sport that’s ever been written.
Yes, it’s better than the great baseball movies, like either of the Costner masterpieces or The Natural. Even better than the great boxing movies like Raging Bull or Million Dollar Baby. Even Rocky. (It begs the question: why hasn’t Hollywood adapted Fences yet? Maybe because the whole thing takes place on a front porch? They can fix that, can't they? Denzel's old enough now. Let's make this happen.)
Wilson’s play is great on many fronts. Of course, it contains the most poetic baseball metaphors of all time, but it also contains the most humane defense of the baseball metaphor of all time. The first scene of Act 2, where Troy confesses to Rose that he’s going to be a baby daddy to another woman.
Troy: “You born with two strikes on you before you come to the plate. You got to guard it closely…always looking for the curveball on the outside corner. You can’t afford to let none get past you. You can’t afford a called strike. If you going down…you going down swinging. Everything lined up against you. What you gonna do. I fooled em, Rose. I bunted. When I found you and Cory and a halfway decent job…I was safe. Couldn’t nothing touch me. I wasn’t going to strike out no more. I wasn’t going back to the penitentiary. I wasn’t gonna lay in the streets with a bottle of wine. I was safe. I had me a family. A job. I wasn’t gonna get that last strike. I was on first looking for one of them boys to knock me in. To get me home.”
Rose: “You should’ve stayed in my bed, Troy.”
Troy: “Then, when I saw that gal..she firmed up my backbone. And I got to thinking that if I tried…I just might be able to steal second. Do you understand that after eighteen years I wanted to steal second.”
Rose: “You should have held me tight. You should have grabbed me and held on.”
Troy: “I stood on first base for eighteen years and I thought…well, goddamn it…go on for it!”
Rose: “We’re not talking about baseball! We’re talking about you going off to lay in bed with another woman…and then bring it home to me. That’s what we’re talking about. We ain’t talking about no baseball.”
Troy: “Rose, you’re not listening to me. I’m trying the best I can to explain it to you. It’s not easy for me to admit that I been standing in the same place for eighteen years.”
But what really makes this play great is the character of Troy Maxon. He’s stuck in the past, but by the end, we miss him. He’s mean and he’s gentle. He wrestles with the complexities of what it means to be a black father while at the same time perpetuating those complexities. He’s loud but he can be quietly desperate and he sings the loneliest lullaby I’ve ever heard. He preaches responsibility while simultaneously shirking it. He is fascinated by recreation, but he forbids his own son from dreaming. He loves his family, but he ends up alone. He follows the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Whether you’re a baseball fan like me, or whether you’re a militant feminist who thinks the Hennepin County stadium sales tax is a bigger injustice than the war in Iraq, you will be mesmerized by this performance. Sitting there in the Penumbra, watching James A. Williams rumble through this part under the direction of Lou Bellamy, you can’t help but think that you are amongst greatness. Bellamy and Wilson were close collaborators, and there is a rhythm to Wilson’s language that actors under Bellamy's direction get. The entire cast is incredible, but when Williams as Troy asserts himself at the end of the third scene, you will understand you are seeing something special.
“Woman…I do the best I can do. I come in here every Friday. I carry a sack of potatoes and a bucket of lard. You all line up at the door with your hands out. I give you the lint from my pockets. I give you my sweat and my blood. I ain’t got no tears. I done spent them. We go upstairs in that room at night...and I fall down on you and try to blast a hole into forever. I get up Monday morning…find my lunch on the table. I go out. Make my way. Find my strength to carry me through to the next Friday. That’s all I got, Rose. That’s all I got to give. I can’t give nothing else.”
Seeing Bellamy do Fences is historic. Srsly. Like seeing Garrick doing Shakespeare. Or seeing Jeter play shortstop for the Yankees.
Don’t strike out.