What’s your motivation: Desire or Obligation?
Paramount screen pictures FENCES, written by August Wilson and theatrical release directed by Denzel Washington, reintroduces middle-aged Troy Maxson, a sanitation man in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and his loyal wife Rose. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprise their Broadway roles as Troy and Rose Maxson alongside Troy’s best friend, Bono, played by Stephen Henderson.
From the opening scene we see the camaraderie between Troy and old pal Bono. As they ride the back of the garbage truck, Troy expresses his frustration with the way black folks are treated at the sanitation plant and it not being right that all the truck drivers are whites while all the colored men are only allowed to ride the truck’s posterior to dump the garbage. And Bono encourages Troy’s decision in telling their boss that the mistreatment is not appreciated! It’s a familiar conversation that still finds its way into today’s “them vs. us” convos of mistrust and inequality at work.
The next several scenes brings us into the Maxson home: plastic covered furniture, just like your grandmother’s home would look back when, to maintain the earthly browns and tufted craftsmanship of the second hand sofa and plush recliner. Rich brown oaks and framed pictures of family relatives and friends adorn the walls of the humble home that Rose so proudly works hard to maintain. As Troy and Bono take their usual Friday evening posts in Troy’s backyard, Rose works her way around the kitchen making sure to have dinner on time for her husband and son, Corry.
Troy begins his usual detailed and very exaggerated renditions of the good ol’ days. Bono listens on and Troy carries on with delight about how things were before they became what they are now. He’d stare out into somewhere only he knew while still managing to captivate his audience. Whether that audience was Bono who would, from time to time, request Rose’s presence to confirm with a “yes” or “no” whether Troy was telling a fib; or his first born from a previous relationship, Lyons, who’d often stop by conveniently on Troy’s payday to borrow a little something to hold him down – it didn’t really matter who was listening to another one of Troy’s fairytales just as long as he was allowed to tell them to someone was all that really mattered.
Rose and Troy speak a special language. A language only shared between 2 lovers and changes from couple to couple. She looks on at him as he tells his tales of how they met and fell in love. How every woman wanted him because he was a big to do baseball player in the Negro leagues. But he chose Rose. Or was it that she chose him? Didn’t matter. In this world all he knew was that it was hard living but worth living as long as Rose was by his side.
And hard living it was. Between an older son who believed playing his music to keep happy was more important than keeping a job to provide for his family; a younger son who decided it was more important to join the high-school football team than to keep his paid afterschool job; and his younger brother who returned from the Vietnam war with a plate in his head and the reduced mind of a 5 year old (with a GI bill that bought the house they now live in) – Troy had a lot to manage at home. He understood what Lyons meant when he said “got music to keep from doing bad things. Got to eat but also got to live.” Wasn’t that exactly what baseball had been to him at one point? And wasn’t that was taken from home? But he didn’t ask for a pity party. And he wasn’t looking for pardon. And it was because of this understanding of life – that you don’t get what you want but rather what it wants for you – that he wants his youngest, Corey to keep the job that actually pays him instead working hard for the dream that will only disappoint him. I mean, isn’t that what happened with his baseball career? It was bound to happen again to Corey. “He’s got to make his own way. I made mine. Ain’t nobody gonna hold his hand out there in the world.”
Troy’s entire existence is about obligation. He married Rose because he loved her and it was the thing to do. He wasn’t going to become a baseball star and he needed an anchor to help keep him grounded through that disappointing fact. He didn’t want to become a sanitations worker but had to take care of his two boys and wife. And he hadn’t intended on living this menial life where his Mondays through Thursdays were just one huge blur all leading up to his few hours of contentment over a bottle of gin on Fridays. But just as soon as one would call this a story about the usual disillusionments stale suburbia life can manifest there is a disruption in the fabric of the Maxson home which leaves Troy with a choice: to continue to carry out his obligation to his family, friends and those who know him or to give into a desire that will set him on a different path – one very different than the path he’d never asked for in the first place. The one thing that may bring him happiness and an escape from his duty and obligation may be the one thing that takes him away from his dear Rose, who is about to be the one thing he can no longer hold on to.
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