The Adventures of the Traveling Book Club

Takoma Park Library

The Adventures of the Traveling Book Club

'Fences' by August Wilson

If you frequent the Takoma Park Neighborhood Library, then you are probably aware of the many book clubs that we host to engage our community including, the What Did We Just Read Book Club, the Book to Film Club, the Urban Fiction Book Club and of course our Adult Book Club. We extend great measure to share the joys of reading with the community.

That being said, we decided to pinch off a piece of the action for ourselves with our own secret staff book club.  We called it The Traveling Book Club!  The chosen book was Fences by August Wilson, a play. Over the course of three months, we all alternated reading this book, sharing just one copy and communicating our views on the book through email. Below are staff comments on the play Fences shared over the duration of the book club.
Janelle, Library Associate:

I respect August Wilson for representing the defining features of African American life in each decade, and Fences was set in the fifties. It moved a little fast and that was annoying. I haven't read a play, outside of high school assigned reading, so it was a little difficult to read. It could have had more plot or been a little more detailed (maybe that just has to do with it being a play, not a novel). I would like to see the emotions expressed in person on stage.

I thought Troy ruined Cory's opportunity for an athletic career. It seemed like he was giving him "tough love," but to his son's detriment. I think maybe he was trying to spare him the pain he went through. Troy's own career was stifled because of race issues.  Maybe he didn't want Cory to have to go through that too, but I thought it was really unfair how he treated Cory. As far as his infidelity, that was the part (of the story) that moved too fast for me. I think Cory changed his mind about Troy's funeral because he still had so much resentment toward his father. It almost seemed a little petty to me, and like that part of the story was rushed.

June, Librarian:
Wow! A lot to think about here! I agree with Janelle that it moves fast, and that might have been the cause for me taking so long to get through it.

I was quite impressed with the inter-generational misunderstandings. How Troy didn't want his child to make the same mistakes he had himself and get hurt, while Cory saw his father ruining his only chance and killing his dreams. Also, this had the most sympathetic portrayal of infidelity I have ever heard/read. When a man has had his dreams killed and is beaten into a rut, who is to blame and does it matter who gets hurt when he tries something to get himself out of it, or sees something to grab to bring himself back to life?

However, I couldn't understand how Troy could kick his son out...

I also agreed with Rose about where she fell down in her relationship with Troy. When she explains to Cory how she married Troy to fill her empty spaces, but didn't realize that she needed to make him leave some space for her. I also did not follow why Cory changed his mind to go to Troy's funeral. Anyone have any ideas?

I thought Troy ruined Cory's opportunity for college and sports too. He still seemed so bitter and upset by his own experience that he couldn't acknowledge times had changed when his friend pointed out that African Americans were getting their first opportunities. He seemed to feel that he was trying to give Cory the realities of life, not realizing that people need dreams.
Did Cory decide to go to his father's funeral to help himself work through his resentment? I just didn't get the ending; he sings the song about Old Blue with his sister and then decides to go? Is Troy supposed to be Old Blue? It was just beyond me.

Pete, Librarian:
Thought-provoking stuff and good commentary too!  I think a lot of the drama that unfolds can be traced back to Wilson’s quote at the beginning:
"When the sins of our fathers visit us
we do not have to play host
we can banish them with forgiveness
As God, in his Largeness and Laws."

Do you raise your children with the values you were raised with or do you rebel and raise them differently? Troy, a flawed but good man, does both. Troy focuses on his father’s carrying out of his responsibilities of feeding and sheltering his eleven children and rebels from the brutal behavior that left him bloodied and bruised. When Cory announces that he won’t be attending his father’s funeral, Rose replies, “Disrespecting your daddy ain’t going to make you a man, Cory. You got to find a way to come to that on your own.” In taking his mother’s advice and attending the funeral, I think Cory is ‘banishing’ the sins of his father and also forgiving them.

Like, June, I was fascinated by the treatment of infidelity in the novel. As June said, “When a man has had his dreams killed and is beaten into a rut, who is to blame and does it matter who gets hurt when he tries something to get himself out of it, or sees something to grab to bring himself back to life?” Good question. “Troy, attempting to explain to Rose says: "I done locked myself into a pattern trying to take care of you all that I forgot about myself. A man’s got to do what’s right for him. I ain’t sorry for nothing I done. It felt right in my heart.” 

There seems to be a basic inequality here. Neither Rose nor Troy were entirely satisfied with their marriage and neither did anything about it. Rose, however, chose to push on, sacrificing her own needs for those of her family. Troy, on the other hand, sought satisfaction in the arms of Alberta. This flaw of acting decisively and unilaterally is also Troy’s virtue. It is what leads him to take the matter of there being no African American drivers to the union, a move that many see as career-threatening.

A good play with complex characters whose motives we see through the lens of generational change.  I too was perplexed about the significance of the Old Blue song as well as with the Gabriel character. The latter’s dance at the end contained some of the most poetic language of the play: “There is a weight of impossible description that falls away and leaves him bare and exposed to a frightful realization…"

Torin, Library Associate:
There's a lot to unpack with this play and I really like what everyone's pointed out so far. The inter-generational conflicts seem to drive the entire story and to potentially clarify the presence of the "Old Blue" song.  It struck me as the vehicle for forgiveness of their father's sins, first for Troy and then for Cory. As Troy says repeatedly, "You've got to take the crooked with the straight." 

So while Troy recalls his brutish father and their fight that sent Troy into the world homeless, he also recalls his father supporting him and his siblings even while his mother left. That Troy sings the "Blue" song, the song his father made up, more and more often towards the end of the play seems to signal his acceptance of his father's sins along with his virtues, now that he realizes he's also committed his own share of sins. There's also the recurring idea of inter-generational blood and bones, that no matter the distance you set between you and your father, he's still part of you.  And I think Rose really helps hit this home with her final dialogue. That, combined with Troy's daughter Raynell knowing the Blue song too, shows Cory the way to move on just as Troy eventually did.
What's curious about the Wilson quote at the beginning is that it characterizes forgiveness as an act of banishment. Banishment is normally an extreme action taken when someone commits something so bad that there's no framework with which to deal with or process that transgression, so the person is simply cast out because there's no other way to handle it. Pairing that with something normally considered healing and very positive, like forgiveness, complicates the notion that to forgive is selfless and healing. It makes forgiveness an extreme act that isn't entirely positive. To forgive in "Fences" is to come to terms with what you've got on the inside of the fence, and what you're keeping out.

I think what's been said about infidelity is spot on!  I'd also add that Wilson is exploring the crushing vice that racism places people in. For so long, Troy has had to rely only on himself and fight for every success he's ever had, only to face the constant harassment, humiliation, and danger of white supremacy. It transforms him into a narcissist, someone who's unable to think outside of himself. He's always talking about his unending support of his family, but that's more about his own sense of himself as a responsible man than it is about what his family’s needs are.  His entire worldview is shaped by what he has personally experienced, and he fails to consider others' world views, and he fails to heed the observations of others (like Bono).
I really liked Gabriel's role.  He served as a personification of what racism can do to a person.  Despite serving in WWII, he's completely at the mercy of white police/doctors, and society is indifferent to his plight, yet he's kind of like the moral compass of the play.  And his belief in himself as angel combined with his actions and stage directions at the end of the play give the entire play a feeling of what is real/what is in Gabriel's head.
I was a little disappointed in Rose's role.  As the only on-stage woman (other than Raynell's brief appearance), she's only given complexity and agency at the end. The other women are only referenced to; one is Bono's Ball-and-Chain, and the other is Troy's mistress who (surprise!) dies in the end.

Library Technician, Katrina--
That's great! I like to read plays because they're short and you can insert your own interpretations of the characters' emotions. Seeing it on stage kind of makes you have to acknowledge the emotional expressions of the actors.  I think that if Wilson had elaborated on the lives of the female characters the play would have to have another act. The conversation about the black man building and traditionally passing on the fences that he has to live within to be considered a man in a racist society is one often tied to the contributions of the black woman.  If Wilson had elaborated, then focus would have to be set on his wife for some time which takes away from the theory of the "fence"  the he is trying to portray. For those who might only watch the play, the real message would be lost over the extra  story line of the "stand by your man" black woman.

Everyone's responses to this play makes me want to re-read it! I am beginning to question my initial response to the play. You all have been so reflective. Have we decided what the next piece will be? I am eager to read and discuss something new!

Oh, how we enjoyed sharpening the proverbial blades of our minds against one another's opinions and sharing this experience with you.  While the adventures of the Traveling Book Club have come to an end, you can look forward to more book reviews from the Takoma Park Library staff soon. And, just in case you’re interested Fences is available for check out with multiple copies available system wide. Check It Out!              

--Katrina, Library Technician