Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Did Bono get Lucille a refrigerator?

This and other questions have been on our minds since my daughters and I saw Fences on Christmas Day.  There is much to think about in this film of August Wilson's play, and much to revel in -- Denzel Washington's acting and directing, Viola Davis' transcendent moment as a betrayed wife, claiming her ground.  As the play has been around for a long time, these questions have surely been hashed out by others.

Here's the exchange that got us wondering:
troy: Yeah, I’ll do that, Bono. Lucille told Rose you bought her a new refrigerator.
bono: Yeah, Rose told Lucille you had finally built your fence.  So I figured we’d call it even.
troy: I knew you would.
bono:Yeah. okay. I’ll be talking to you.
In a subsequent scene, we see, however, that the fence is not finished, and that made us wonder about this exchange.  Was Troy needling Bono?  Was Bono needling Troy?  The distance between the old friends is great, a result of Troy's anger and self-righteousness, which justified his having affair (and eventually a baby with his mistress), being brutal to his son, and brushing off Bono's good counsel.  

The self-righteous anger is at the heart of the play, which makes it clear Troy has been caught in the vise of racism, and sees no way out.  He wants his son to eschew hope as well:
troy: I don’t care where he coming from. The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway. You go on and get your book-learning so you can work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something, get you a trade. That way you have something can’t nobody take away from you. You go on and learn how to put your hands to some good use. Besides hauling people’s garbage.
In the narrow and bitter space of Troy's life, there is no respite.  But the point of the story is in the ending, when Gabe, Troy's half-mad brother, blows his trumpet and the gates of Heaven open to let Troy in.  Gabe says triumphantly, 
That's the way that go!

This is a play that's understood as depicting black life, and of course it is rooted in the particularities of black existence.  My father had Troy's anger and lived some of Troy's life, escaping a brutal father and coming North with the Great Migration, making a way as he made a family and a better America.  
But it's the Angel Gabriel, God's Messenger, letting Heaven know Troy is coming, that pulls our coat that August Wilson is not simply transcribing what the guys said at Eddie's Restaurant on Wiley Avenue in the Hill District.  He wants us to know something sublime -- that's why August Wilson is so revered among playwrights and why Denzel Washington's luminous film is so sublime.  

The answer to the question -- "Did Bono buy Lucille a refrigerator?" -- is another question, "What do you do when there is no room to move?"  

By Cyrus Emanuel Eugenicus - ამირანაშვილი შ. ქართული ხელოვნების ისტორია. -თბ., 1971, Public Domain,
All black people, and lots of white people, know the answer to that question, which is, "God will make a way where there is no way."  August Wilson brilliantly depicts the small openings that give people chances for change and self-expression, some drastic and hurtful, like the affair or Cory's joining the Marines, and some small and ordinary, like Troy finishing the fence.  And even the ultimate one, Troy's brother opening the Gates of Heaven for him, a moment of Grace that gives us all courage to do the next right thing.

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