Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

August Wilson’s Pittsburgh

To appreciate Denzel Washington’s ‘Fences,’ it helps to know about playwright August Wilson and the Pittsburgh in which he was raised, explains Pitt professor LAURENCE GLASCO

- Laurence Glasco is an accociate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh (larryglasc­o@gmail.com). He is writing a biography of August Wilson, focusing on Mr. Wilson’s Pittsburgh years.

Denzel Washington’s filming of “Fences,” the Pulitzer-Prize winning play by August Wilson, has once again put Pittsburgh on the cultural map. As well it should, for this tale of Troy Maxson, a frustrated, deeply flawed garbage man, and Rose, his understand­ing, near-perfect wife, has universal resonance but is grounded in the history of Pittsburgh and Mr. Wilson. As such, some knowledge of the two can greatly enhance one’s appreciati­on of the film.

A Pittsburgh­er might quibble about a couple of inaccuraci­es. Set in 1957, the film’s sunny skies show no sign of the air pollution and soot that would have made Rose’s tidy house difficult to keep clean. A bit more troubling, the film’s garbage trucks are “back-loading” when they should have been “top loading.” Pittsburgh garbage men in those days had to climb up to the top of their trucks to dump large burlap bags of messy, dripping dreck – a dangerous and nauseating task.

In most ways, though, the film accurately captures the era’s Hill District streetscap­e and atmosphere. As it portrays, garbage men in Pittsburgh were white until, in the 1950s, concerted protests ended their racial monopoly.

References to Troy’s baseball prowess also ring true. Pittsburgh had two of the best teams in the Negro Leagues, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays, which boasted Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and scores of lessherald­ed icons, much like Mr. Wilson’s fictional Mr. Maxson. Scenes of black and white children playing stick ball together is a bit of a stretch, but in the 1950s a modest number of whites still resided in the Hill.

Less obvious to viewers will be how much of Mr. Wilson’s personal life is layered into the background. Even the title “Fences” refers to aspects of Mr. Wilson’s life. His childhood home on Bedford Avenue sat well back from the street and was reachable only by way of a long, narrow passage closed off by a gate. A very private person, Mr. Wilson’s mother Daisy used that gate to keep others out and her children in.

The concept of the fence also applies to Mr. Wilson’s identity.

He admired what he termed the “warrior spirit.” A warrior is someone who works hard, who is persistent and who doesn’t take crap from anybody. Mr. Wilson had those traits, as does Troy.

Mr. Wilson, like Troy, loved to play baseball, too, and, like Troy, he swung for the fences. “Warriors,” in life and on the field, hit for home runs or struck out trying. In an especially painful episode, Troy justifies his infidelity to Rose

by saying that, while a wife and a home are good to have, like a bunt they get you only to first base. Troy wanted it all, and he secretly dated another woman to escape life’s disappoint­ments, such as his job, his salary and worrying about whether he had money enough to repair the roof.

Charley Burley, Mr. Wilson’s neighbor and father figure, was a true warrior, and he was the prototype for Troy. Charley was a talented prize-fighter who could have been world champion had he been put in the right fights. But, like Troy, he wound up working for the city as a garbage man.

Charley’s reaction intrigued Mr. Wilson, because Charley was not bitter and got along well with his sons. Charley always dressed sharp and had a jovial personalit­y.

As for missing his chance at fame, Charley would tell Mr. Wilson, “That’s just life.” Like Troy, Charley had a warrior spirit, but not one that proved his undoing. Charley could take a punch, get back up and keep going.

Mr. Wilson’s mother Daisy is another prototype for Troy. Much of the conflict in “Fences” revolves around the battle between Troy and his son Cory over the boy’s dream of playing college football on a scholarshi­p.

Troy, despite being an awesome home run hitter in the Negro Leagues, never got a chance to play in the majors. By the time the Major League let blacks play, he was too old. Still bitter about the injustice, Troy won’t let Cory accept the college scholarshi­p, insisting that Cory keep his steady, “practical” job at A&P. After prolonged wrangling, Troy kicks Cory out of the house, and Cory joins the Marines. Cory happens to be home on leave just after his father’s death, and tells Rose he won’t attend the funeral. He relents when she tells him how much his father actually loved and admired him, and how much he is like his father.

Mr. Wilson’s mother had hoped that her son would go to a “good Catholic college” and become a lawyer. Daisy was bitterly disappoint­ed when he dropped out of Central Catholic High School, and she told him he should go to Connelley Vocational School to become an auto mechanic like his uncle. Mr. Wilson went to Connelley, but he got expelled and later dropped out of school altogether.

When Mr. Wilson showed no sign of getting his life together, Daisy berated him to the point that, like Cory, he left home and joined the military. Mr. Wilson’s younger brother Edwin remembers Mr. Wilson returning home proudly in his Army uniform.

But the Army didn’t work out either, and Mr. Wilson, after a sojourn in California, returned to Pittsburgh to be with his dying father. Like Cory, Mr. Wilson had not bonded with his dad, a German baker. But his coming home to be with his father as he lay dying showed that things were changing. In an unpublishe­d poem written later, Mr. Wilson said he had become his father’s son, baking “golden loaves” of poems instead of rolls.

In these ways, and others, knowing something of Pittsburgh and of August Wilson’s personal life enhances our understand­ing of Mr. Wilson’s plays. As he said about the importance of Pittsburgh to his writing: “It formed and shaped me. It's the place I know best.”

And, as he said about the characters in his plays: “[They] all come out of me, they are probably all me, the different aspects of my personalit­y.”

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