I bought my ticket online and failed to run any documentation of my $338 ticket (face value: $125). I thought the ticket was being sent to my house in Illinois. It did not come. The very day I was to fly out, I was on the phone to the theater, trying to find out if there was a ticket for me at Will Call.(A: Not at that time).
I vacillated about leaving the floor of the Jacob Javits Center on Wednesday (May 26) and traveling to the Theater on 48th Street, but, ultimately decided that I should go and check it out. After all, I could always eat somewhere in the neighborhood, which turned out to be quite close to Rockefeller Center and Simon & Schuster’s offices.
The Pulitzer-prize winning play, written by August Wilson, is one of the ten plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, which focus on the twentieth century African-American experience. It is set between 1957 and 1965, in Pittsburgh, and follows Troy Maxson, a former baseball player in the Negro Leagues, now reduced to collecting other people’s rubbish for a living.
Troy is dealing with his football payer son Cory(Chris Chalk), who is coming of age at a time when sports could be his ticket out of the ghetto, except that Troy does not see it that way where his son’s opportunities in the sports world are concerned. Troy’s mind-set, colored by the years of his own youth and sports prowess, are that the black man will not get a fair deal, and he cannot accept or trust Cory’s increased opportunities.
The play won the 1985 Pulitzer for drama. It is directed here by Kenny Leon, who won the Drama League award as Best Director. In addition, the play, which has a limited run only through July 11th, has garnered 10 Tony nominations, more than any other play on Broadway. Said the New York Times, “You just do not see performances like this on Broadway.”
The cast is outstanding. The New Yorker called the production “Gorgeous, Thrilling. Unmissable.” Not only is two-time Academy Award-winner Denzel Washington (“Training Day” and “Glory”; 3 additional nominations) in the lead as Troy Maxson, Viola Davis plays his wife Rose. Ms. Davis has won multiple awards (Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle Award), and was also nominated for an Academy Award for her turn in the film “Doubt,” where she played the African-American mother of the young boy who may (or may not) have been abused by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s priest. Additionally, she was nominated for a Golden Globe, the SAG and Critics Choice Award and the National Board of Review Award for Best Breakthrough Performance. (“Doubt’)
Also great in his role is Stephen McKinley Henderson as Jim Bono, Troy’s best friend. Henderson is the former Chair of the Department of Theater and Dance at SUNY. Troy’s brother Gabe, who suffered a head wound in WWII and is reduced to a role as the village idiot as a result, is portrayed by Mykelti Williamson, who is best known as the black friend of Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump.”(Also, recently, appeared on television’s “24”). Chris Chalk plays Cory, the youngest son, and Russell Hornsby plays Lyons.
Each act opens with the sweet sound of a solo saxophone that soon turns into original jazz, composed by Branford Marsalis. The set, too, is wonderful, with what looks like a giant oak tree on the left of the stage and the exterior of the house on the right, with the interior of the kitchen with its cabinets visible through the lighted windows.
When Denzel appeared onstage, clad in green coveralls, the crowd went wild. He quickly threw around the “n” word, talking with his friend Jim Bono (Henderson) about a friend caught carrying a huge watermelon. The two are talking about their jobs hauling trash, with comments about how all the drivers are white and all the trash handlers are black. Troy (Washington) is trying to get the union to open the drivers’ positions up to blacks and says, “All I want them to do is change the job description.”
There’s some concern that Troy’s making waves in this way might get him fired, but he dismisses these concerns as bogus and also dismisses his friend Jim Bono’s comments concerning how he (Troy) has been eyeing a pretty new woman in the neighborhood, Alberta, who has recently moved to Pittsburgh from Tallahassee.
In response to Bono’s (Henderson’s) joking around that he has been “eyeing” Alberta, Troy says, “I eye all the women. I don’t miss nothin’.” He goes on to talk in earthy fashion about his sincere love for his long-time (18 years) wife Rose (Viola Davis) and says of her womanly form, “Legs don’t mean nothin’…you just push them outta’ the way. And those hips, wider than the Mississippi. It’s like ridin’ on Good Year.”
A brief recap of Troy’s courtship of wife Rose is given, where Troy admits that he told her, “I don’t wanna’ marry. I just want to be your man.” Her response? “If you’re not the marrying kind, move out of the way so the marrying kind can find me.”
Troy has been much celebrated as a home run hitter and baseball player extraordinaire, whose dreams of a career in baseball were dashed because he came along too early. Troy responds, “There ought never a been a time too early.” (The crowd applauded). The fact that the times are changing for black athletes sets up a conflict between Troy and his younger son, Cory, who is being recruited to play college football. Troy disapproves, because he feels that the boy is just being used, and that it will not lead to any kind of job in his future. “Learn to take care of yourself,” he tells his older son Lyons, a musician. “You still tryin’ to get somethin’ for nothin’.” (His son replies, “You can’t change me, Pop. I’m 34 years old.”)
Gabe, his now half-witted brother (Mykelti Williamson) makes appearances chasing “hell hounds” and spouting gibberish. There is some question as to whether Troy has “used” Gabe. A $3,000 settlement was paid to Gabe after his head injury in the war, and Troy used it to purchase the house they all live in, but Gabe has recently decided to move out and live at Miss Pearle’s, where he must pay rent.
Did Troy abuse his brother’s trust? Troy says, matter-of-factly, that he is 53 years old and, “I ain’t got a pot to piss in nor a window to throw it out.” Without the government’s payment to his brother for his war wounds, neither Troy nor Rose nor Gabe would ever have been able to save enough money to purchase the house. Troy notes repeatedly that he has taken care of his brother and watched over him and given him a place to stay, and Gabe’s decision to move to Miss Pearle’s seems to represent more a striving for independence on his part than a falling-out between the brothers.
In the course of the play, Troy reveals that, although he now preaches the value of hard work, he once was “a robber” and spent 15 years in prison, where he met his great and good friend Jim Bono and straightened himself out. His boyhood was tough, too, with an abusive father and a mother who ran off and left him when he was 8 years old. Of his father, he says, “The man would sit down, eat 2 chickens, and give you the wings.” One of 11 children of this farmer, Troy left home at 14. When asked about his father’s whereabouts now, Troy says, “I don’t know, but I hope he’s dead.” Troy says he walked 200 miles to Mobile in 1918 and has been working hard ever since, but notes of his father, “All his women run off and left him.”
The conflict between Troy and Cory, his youngest son with Rose, may or may not be what Cory thinks it is: “You’re scared I’m gonna’ be better than you are. That’s all.” Is this the truth, or is it that Troy is a product of his times, and, in his times, the black man could not catch a break and certainly could not play in the major leagues of any sport, pre Jackie Robinson’s day?
An ongoing motif is the building of a fence in the back yard, which his son, Cory, and his best friend Bono are assisting Troy to build. Says the script, symbolically, “Some people build fences to keep people out, and some people build fences to keep people in.”
Troy’s friend, Bono, is concerned that Troy may be cheating on Rose with the new woman, Alberta. He inquires in a roundabout way, reminding Troy that Rose is a good woman. When the questioning becomes too strident, Troy tells Bono, “If you was messin’ around on Lucille (his wife), I’d be tellin’ you the same thing.”
The lure of the pretty young woman from Tallahassee is too strong. “I love Rose,” says Troy, but she (Alberta) gave me a different understanding about myself. I can’t give that up.” He confesses his unfaithfulness to Rose in a climactic scene where he uses baseball metaphors to try to explain himself, saying, “I done tried all my life to live a clean, hard, useful life. I wasn’t gonna’ get that last shot. Maybe I could steal second?” Earlier in the play, Troy has said that he is just trying to keep his son, Cory, from getting hurt, that “nobody’s gonna’ hold his hand when he get out in the world.” He adds, of his life philosophy, I just come home, go upstairs, fall down on Rose and try to blast a hole into forever.” All the blasting a hole into forever (sex) comes to an end in his marriage to Rose with his confession of infidelity.
Rose does not react well upon hearing the news from Troy. Viola Davis’ virtuoso turn as the wronged wife hearing the news that her husband has been having an affair and his mistress is now pregnant drew sobs from the woman seated to my left. Rose said, “You’re not the only one who has wants and needs. It didn’t take me no 18 years to realize that, after 18 years, it wasn’t never gonna’ bloom.”
As this journey through the years (8, total) continues, Alberta dies in childbirth, and Troy appears with his infant daughter, Raynell, in his arms, asking his wife, Rose, to be a mother to his mistress’ child. Despite Troy’s defense of his actions that “It felt right in my heart. A man’s gotta’ do what’s right for him,” Rose is unforgiving regarding Troy’s straying, but agrees to mother Raynell, saying, “This child’s got a mother, but you a womanless man.”
The theme that Troy has blown it in his personal life is echoed by his subsequent loss of the companionship of his former best friend, Bono. Cory drives home the changes that Troy’s reckless behavior has caused when he attempts to enter the house while his father is seated on the front porch stoop and says, “You in my way. I gotta’ get by.” Troy takes offense that his son has not been polite in saying, “Excuse me” and Cory responds, “You don’t count around here no more.”
There is much talk of doing battle with Death and many tall tales told. After losing both his wife’s love and his best friend to his own bad behavior, Troy pronounces himself ready to die (“I be ready for you (Death), but I ain’t gonna’ be easy.”). He says, “I can’t taste nothin’,” a crying out that his days of enjoying a good life with his wife and family have passed; he is now merely tolerated in his own home.
Eventually, he and son Cory face off and Troy kicks Cory out of the house for good when Cory is only 17 years old. Troy joins the Marines, and, in the last act, we see him in full military regalia, coming home to attend his father’s funeral, but telling his mother that he isn’t going to go to the funeral.
Cooler heads prevail, and Cory does attend, to honor his father, who once said, “I’m going to give her the best of what is in me.” Cory and his half-sister, Raynell, who is now a young girl, remember Troy’s singing about a dog named Blue and his oft-quoted saying, “You’ve gotta’ take the crookeds with the straights.”
Although the comments on race relations in a changing world and the inequities that existed throughout this period of time in our nation’s history are relevant to the older playgoers, the core emotions of the play deal with love for one’s family, doing your best, being straight and honest in the world, and paying the consequences if you’re not.