Ron Scherl/The John Willis Theatre World/Screen World Archive
James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson
James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson Ron Scherl/The John Willis Theatre World/Screen World Archive
In a brutal confrontation, Troy Maxson tells his son Cory where his paternal obligations end.
Note: Contains language that is not suitable for all audiences.
Rose (Tamara Tunie) and Cory (Anthony Mackie) in a recent staged reading of Fences at Washington's John F. Kennedy Center.
Rose (Tamara Tunie) and Cory (Anthony Mackie) in a recent staged reading of Fences at Washington's John F. Kennedy Center. Carol Pratt
Troy Maxson is a big man with a big personality, a troubled, bitter giant who believes he owes his family everything — from his paycheck to his soul.
He's the protagonist — you can't quite say "hero," except maybe if you put "tragic" in front of it — of August Wilson's play Fences. And in the words of director Kenny Leon, "there is not a character, definitely not in American theater, that is on the scale of a Troy Maxson. ... Troy Maxson is Othello, Macbeth, Willy Loman combined."
James Earl Jones has played Othello, not to mention Darth Vader — and he's been Troy Maxson, too. In fact he originated the role on Broadway. He says Troy is a hungry man — and that understanding that fact was how he came to terms with the character.
"It doesn't forgive everything he does or says," Jones reflects. "'Cause he is very cruel, also. But it allowed me to like him. It allowed me to love him. He's a man who's wanting."
Humor, and 'Psychic Hunger'
That wanting leads Troy into gut-wrenching territory.
"He has humor that fills the world," says Kenny Leon. But "he also has problems that fill the world."
Years ago, Fences tells us, Troy killed a man in a robbery. During his 15-year prison stint, he took up baseball, and after his release he played in the Negro Leagues. He became a home-run king, in fact — but he believes racism deprived him of a shot at the majors.
With that dream dead, Troy took a job as a garbage man in Pittsburgh, struggling to eke out an existence in a city that doesn't embrace him. And the bitterness lingers.
As the play unfolds, he destroys his son's chance at a college football scholarship, believing whites won't let the young man play. Then there's Troy's infidelity — involving a Florida gal with hips as wide as the Mississippi — after 18 years of marriage.
"He has the affair because he wants, he just wants, and his wife cannot give him all he wants — and that's a psychic hunger that was developed in his childhood in the South with his father," Jones says. "And developed in prison, and in the baseball world he occupied for a while."
'He Looked Like He Was 7 Feet Tall'
Still, Troy is a captivating man — a charmer, a storyteller.
"I think August may have written that part for James Earl Jones," says actress Tamara Tunie.
Tunie saw Jones in the original Fences production, and thinks the actor looks like the Troy the playwright envisioned. Wilson described Troy as a man striving to fill out his largeness, writing that Troy's size and his blackness informed his sensibilities — and the choices he made in life.
"When I saw James Earl Jones on Broadway, he looked like he was 7 feet tall, and just took up the entire stage," Tunie says.
Tunie played Troy's wife Rose in a recent Kennedy Center production, and she says Troy Maxson has an irresistible Everyman spirit.
"As Rose, even when we were fighting and arguing, I just loved that man," Tunie says.
That's one of the reasons Rose doesn't leave when Troy has an affair. Rose, Tunie explains, buried her own hopes and dreams. She accepted her husband's flaws — because that's what one does in a marriage.
"It has nothing to do with Rose, or his relationship with Rose, or I think his relationship with any particular woman," Tunie says. "I think that Troy is ... very dissastisfied with life — and, you know, [with] the position he has been put in because he was a black man in the '50s. So its really his anger and bitterness at life's disappointments that cause him to do the things he does."
'Drown the Damn Baby'
But Troy Maxson's anger doesn't define him — and he doesn't play by the usual rules.
"He has an honesty that most people don't have," director Kenny Leon says. When his wife asks him if he's going to break off the affair, Leon points out, Troy responds with a directness that surprises many.
"He says, 'I can't do it. I sit up in her house and she makes me laugh'," Leon explains. "He could have said, "Yeah yeah yeah I'm gonna leave this woman alone," but he doesn't because he can't. He is a very honest, direct, complex, flawed character."
Troy doesn't just confess his affair to Rose — he asks her to raise the other woman's baby after she dies in childbirth. James Earl Jones still remembers how the audience reacted to that scene.
"I'm in front of the audience, and they're laughing, and he's a great storyteller," he recalls. "But once I bring the bastard child home, especially the women in the audience began to hate me, and began to talk back to me. They began to say, 'Drown the damn baby.' Words like that would come from the audience."
Rose agrees to raise the baby, but their relationship clearly won't be the same. She finds her independence in his infidelity:
"Okay, Troy ... you're right. I'll take care of your baby for you ... cause like you say ... she's innocent ... and you can't visit the sins of the father upon the child. A motherless child has got a hard time. From right now ... this child got a Mother. But you are a womanless man."
'You Have to See Beyond the Surface'
His wife isn't the only family member Troy battles with. There's a smoldering tension between him and his son Cory. You can feel it — it's like a disease eating away at the family. One of the play's great scenes (you can see it here, in a clip from the 1987 Tony Awards ceremony) is a confrontation about a father's duty to a son.
"You live in my house — sleep your behind in my bedclothes, fill your belly up with my food, 'cause you my son," Troy tells Cory. "'Cause it's my duty to take care of you. I owe a responsibility to you. ... And liking your black ass wasn't part of the bargain. Don't you try and go through life worrying if somebody like you or not. You best be sure they doing right by you."
Harsh, and heartbreaking to watch. But it's also a lesson, in its way, about demanding your due in a world that can't be counted on to give it to you. Actress Tamara Tunie says Troy is just trying to keep his son from suffering the same disappointments he went through himself.
"You have to see beyond the surface, and the harshness of the words, and really listen to what he is saying," Tunie explains."I have met those kinds of men who you think are so harsh and bitter and angry, and it's really from a deep place of disappointment."
And those men come from all walks of life. As James Earl Jones says, one reason Troy's story resonates is that August Wilson's words paint a deft portrait that's familiar to everyone, regardless of race. Jones says Troy Maxson is so universal that his story — and that of his family — will be eternal.