I met Troy Maxson – the fictional character portrayed by Mr. Denzel Washington in ‘FENCES,’ which opens in theaters nationwide on Christmas Day – in 2003 when I was tasked with bringing the illiterate yet talkative garbage collector to life on the stage of University City High School, a Philadelphia institution of learning that no longer stands.
Maxson – a complex character which Mr. Washington, a consistent box office draw, handled well – generates emotion in those who view him, but his multiplicities of identities ensure that the feelings felt will run the gamut: in one moment Maxson will have you sympathizing with his bitter and meager existence, in the next his perceived indifference to the pain he causes makes you fume, yet you can’t resist chuckling at the outlandish stories he so animatedly tells – for a man unable to read, Maxson sure loves to talk, until he doesn’t.
Having portrayed the character myself, seen the stage-play years ago at the Arden Theater in Old City Philadelphia, and then watching the film adaption, which was directed by Mr. Washington, the question of whether Troy Maxson is a good man… a good father, remains as complex to answer as the character itself.
It’s obvious that Maxson, a former baseball star who never achieved all he could and who in the 1950’s vocally resents racism, wants to be a good man. He works hard daily, turns over his weekly pay to his wife, Rose – who in the movie is portrayed by Emmy Award-winning actress Ms. Viola Davis – and understands the responsibility he has to provide for the family. He may not like his son, Corey, who is played by Mr. Jovan Adepo, but he cares for him nonetheless.
Maxson’s relationship with Corey, who wants to play football but is discouraged by his dominant father, is a central point of tension in ‘Fences.’ The resistance to Corey’s dream can be perceived as jealously – and there’s certainly some of that at play – but it also plausible that Maxson fully comprehends the ugly side of amateur and professional sports in the 20th Century and wants to protect his teenage son from an anti-black America that will do him no favors.
Maxson can be mean, but with Bono (played by Mr. Stephen Henderson), his best friend, he’s jovial, with Rose he’s frisky and endearing, and with Gabriel (played by Mr. Mykelti Williamson), his mentally-handicapped brother whose tragedy provided Maxson with his only real asset, he’s compassionate. The magic of Troy Maxson, the patriarch imagined by playwright Mr. August Wilson, is that he’s a multi-dimensional figure who’s not one thing to all people, but someone different to each person he encounters.
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