James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe only met once in their lifetime. They shared the stage on April 9, 1980, at the University of Florida in Gainesville, as keynote speakers at the fifth annual conference of the African Literature Association. Achebe reminisces about the meeting on this audio recording, recalling how Baldwin described him as “my brother whom I met yesterday—who I have not seen in 400 years.” Baldwin was saluting the historical kinship and recognizability that links African and Afro-diasporic lifeworlds.
Later in their dialogue Baldwin tells Achebe: “when I read Things Fall Apart … I recognized everybody in it. That book was about my father.” Baldwin has written extensively about his father, both in his autobiographical novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, and in his essay collection, Notes of a Native Son. He writes that his father “lived and died in an intolerable bitterness of spirit,” with a deep distrust of the world in general and white people in particular. Baldwin’s father, like Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, was a troubled man who wrestled with his times the best way he knew how. In the process, both men harmed those they loved. Watching August Wilson’s 1985 play, Fences—currently running at the Joburg Theatre in South Africa as part of Black History Month programming—I was reminded of this conversation between Baldwin and Achebe, because the protagonist, Troy Maxson, battles with his times, inadvertently harming those he loves. Like Baldwin’s encounter with Things Fall Apart, many Africans know everyone in Fences. We know Troy Maxson. He is our father, our uncle, our neighbor, the man in the mirror. And Rose, his wife, is known to us too—she’s our long-suffering mother, sister, aunt, whose refusal of despair breathes many tomorrows into our spirits, despite our oscillating love and unspeakable betrayals.
Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences is preoccupied with the lives, hurts and dreams of ordinary African Americans. The play explores three generations of the Maxson family, with Troy Maxson (Tumisho Masha), navigating his own father’s betrayal and his complicated relationships to his three children by different mothers—Lyons (Hlomla Dandala), Cory (Atandwa Kani) and Raynelle (Itumeleng Ngxakazi)—all while trying to protect his mentally unstable brother Gabe (Sibusiso Mamba) from being committed to an institution. Troy’s wife of 18 years, Rose (Khutjo Green) and his best friend Bono (Lunga Radebe) anchor him with bone-deep love and unfailing honesty.
I was both excited and nervous about seeing Fences, which opened this month. Denzel Washington’s screen interpretation of Fences, in which he played Troy Maxson opposite Viola Davis, is a firm favorite. It introduced August Wilson to many African audiences and may explain the excitement about the Joburg Theatre production. I wondered whether Fences would settle well on the South African stage. I should have remembered that South African dramatists have decades of experience staging ambitious foreign productions with trademark poise. But I stand reminded: my first stop after the jubilant standing ovation on my first viewing, was the box office. I needed tickets to watch it again.
It is hard to do justice to this production. The stellar cast take us through an immense landscape of vigorous and delicate affects, with virtuoso command of body, voice, gaze and dramatic timing. At the hands of two award-winning legends—South Africa’s Dr John Kani as co-producer, America’s Ricardo Khan as director—the spirit of the play blooms on stage with an organic ease that spells the two legends’ artistic genius. The exquisite modulation of actors’ energies ensures flawless blending of stage presence, dialogue without overshadowing any character. The vast range of emotions the cast traverses prompt utmost respect for their stamina. I am reminded of Dr Kani’s award-winning play, Nothing but the Truth, first staged in 2002, which makes similar emotional demands on the cast.
Interestingly, theater-goers marveled at the accents during the intermission. The cast worked closely with dialect coach Yewande James; and the result is remarkable. For audiences used to watching Hollywood stars mangle our tongues when they play African characters, it is gratifying to witness the ease with which African American speech patterns roll off the ensemble’s tongues. It also confirms what we have always known: Hollywood’s distortion of African tongues is born of disregard for African lifeworlds.
Over and above the allure of local screen stars on stage, or the kinship ties signaled by Baldwin above, Fences resonates with South African audiences for the story it tells. The intergenerational traumas of an anti-Black world are only too familiar. But August Wilson refuses to saddle his characters with victimhood. Rather, he extends deep respect and empathy to them, even at their worst. He prompts us to read these characters as more than their brokenness. Troy Maxson is all flavors of flawed, but he wins our empathy. We embrace his mischievous humor; his anger at racial prejudice; his disappointment at broken dreams; his deep sense of obligation towards his family; and his passionate love for his wife, Rose. Fences insists that we hold space for Troy, even when we are outraged at his betrayals. In a similar vein, Gabe, Troy’s brother, may be mentally destabilized from war, but he is no flat victim. His prophetic memories and innocent delight break our hearts. We crumble with him, devastated, when his trumpet will not wake up St. Peter to open heaven’s gate.
Black Studies scholar Christina Sharpe asks: what does it mean to tend to the dead and the dying? What does it mean to tend to our broken? How do we insist ourselves into being, in an anti-black world? Fences models some answers: it means working at relation. It means honoring our humanity despite the unhumaning we live with. It means making space for the black everyday. It means defending that everyday from the seductions of spectacle, and honoring its beauty.
It means asking: what forms of woundedness lie behind a black man’s infidelity? And what does the black woman who stands beside him through his wounding and brokenness, do with her grief at such betrayal? There is a long history of black men burying their hurt, their broken, in black women’s bodies and spirits. Rose is one such burial ground, tenaciously tending to the woundedness of Troy, Gabe, Lyons and her own son, Cory, throughout the play. Where do black women like Rose bury their hurt? What becomes of their dreams, neatly folded away with outgrown baby clothes and never-used dinner sets for special guests? Toni Morrison told us half a century ago that love is never better than the lover; the love of broken people bruises. But they too, know heartbreak. I think Troy’s heart breaks one too many times, eventually surrendering to the weight of the world—the weight that made both Okonkwo and Baldwin’s father bitter men with bruising touches.
On the two occasions I have seen the play, laughter, whistles, and exclamations sparkled across the auditorium. But I was also struck by audience laughter at unlikely points in the play. When Troy Maxson shares his childhood memories, describing his father’s attempt to sexually assault his teenage girlfriend, there was uneasy laughter. Later, when the friction between Troy and his son Cory escalates to a physical confrontation, there was that laughter again. Read thinly, this laughter seems troublingly dissonant, bordering on the sadistic. But we must remember laughter’s labors in many black communities. Laughter helps us bypass difficult emotions whose intensity threatens to paralyze us. Laughter softens life’s punches; it buys us a breath or two to find our grip in devastating encounters. This may explain why some of the best jokes and deepest laughter blooms in crushing grief.
In his essay, “The Truth of Fiction,” Achebe writes that art lends us a second handle on reality. As South African society debates intergenerational trauma, fatherhood, and the corrosive power of personal and systemic betrayal, I cannot think of a truer handle on our reality than Fences.
It is a gift to have this play staged in Johannesburg. And though it leaves many an eye soaked, Fences ends with a gentle reminder: between God, our ancestors, and all the spirits that human us, we are always held.