Troy Maxson: Heart, Heartbreak as Big as the World He's the protagonist — you can't quite say "hero," unless you add "tragic" in front — of August Wilson's play Fences. James Earl Jones, who first played the part, helps explain why he's unforgettable.
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Troy Maxson: Heart, Heartbreak as Big as the World

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Troy Maxson: Heart, Heartbreak as Big as the World

Troy Maxson: Heart, Heartbreak as Big as the World

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Troy Maxson is a homerun king in the Negro Baseball League. He believes racism cost him a chance to play in the majors. The story of this bitter man is told in August Wilson's drama, "Fences." It won the 1987 Pulitzer Price.

Troy Maxson has been compared to some of theaters' most powerful and tormented leading men.

Mr. KENNY LEON (Stage Director): Troy Maxson is Othello, Macbeth, Willy Loman combined.

NORRIS: And we're focusing on Troy Maxson today for our series, In Character. You just heard Kenny Leon speaking. He's a prominent director of August Wilson plays. The actor who originated the role of Broadway - the role on Broadway -is James Earl Jones.

NPR's Allison Keyes spoke with Jones about his all time favorite fictional character.

ALLISON KEYES: James Earl Jones has been Othello, and he's played many other iconic roles, from boxer Jack Johnson in the "Great White Hope" to King Lear to Dark Vader. But Jones has great affection for Troy Maxson, a man he describes as a very hungry person.

Mr. JAMES EARL JONES (Actor): That doesn't forgive everything he does or says because he's very cruel, also. But it allowed me to like him, you know. It allowed me to love him. He's a man who's wanting.

KEYES: That wanting leads Troy into gut-wrenching problems. He destroys his son's chance at a college football scholarship, believing whites won't let Cory play. Then there's Troy's infidelity with the Florida gal with hips as wide as the Mississippi, after 18 years of marriage to Rose.

Mr. JONES: He has the affair because he just wants, he wants. And his wife cannot give him all he wants, and that's a psychic hunger that was developed in his childhood with his father in the South, and on the farm. And it developed in prison, developed in the baseball world that he occupied for a while.

KEYES: Troy Maxson served 15 years in prison for murder before meeting Rose and taking a job as a garbage man in Pittsburgh. Now he, like so many other poor blacks in 1957, struggles to eke an existence in a city that doesn't embrace them. Still, Troy's a captivating man, despite these challenges. In the 1987 Broadway production of "Fences," actress Mary Alice's roles laughs while Troy tells her friend who he courted her.

(Soundbite of stage play, "Fences")

Mr. JONES: (As Troy Maxson) Look here, Bono. When I met this woman, I got out of that place, say, hitch up my pony, saddle my mare. There's a woman right there for me somewhere. I looked here. I looked there. I saw Rose, and latched on to her. I latched on to her and told her - I'm going to tell you the truth. Told her, baby, I don't want to marry. I just wants to be your man. And she told me - tell him what you told me, Rose.

Ms. MARY ALICE (Actor): (As Rose) I told him if he wasn't the marrying kind, then move out the way so the marrying kind could find me.

Ms. TAMARA TUNIE (Actor): I think of August may have written that part for James Earl Jones.

KEYES: Actress Tamara Tunie saw James Earl Jones in the original "Fences" production and thinks Jones looks like the Troy August Wilson envisioned. Wilson describes Troy as a man striving to fill out he's largeness, and wrote that Troy's size and blackness informed his sensibilities and the choices he made in life.

Ms. TUNIE: When I saw James Earl Jones on Broadway, he looked like he was, you know, seven feet tall and just took up the entire stage.

KEYES: Tunie played Troy Maxson's wife Rose in the recent Kennedy Center production, and says Troy Maxson has an irresistible, everyman spirit.

Ms. TUNIE: As Rose, even when we were fighting and arguing, I just loved that man.

KEYES: Tunie says that's one of the reasons Rose doesn't leave when Troy has the affair. Rose, she explains, buried her own hopes and dreams and accepted her husband's flaws because that's what one does in a marriage.

Ms. TUNIE: It has nothing to do with Rose or his relationship with Rose, or I think his relationship with any particular woman. I think Troy is, as you said, hungry. And I think he's very dissatisfied with life and the position that he has been put in because he was a black man in the '50s. And so I think it's really his anger and bitterness at life's disappointments that cause him to do the things that he does.

KEYES: Again, "Fences" Director Kenny Leon.

Mr. LEON: He has an honesty that most people don't have. I mean, when his wife says to him, Troy, all I want to know is, are you going to leave this woman? And he says I can't do it, you know. I sit up in her house and she makes me laugh. That's a man who didn't have to say that. He goes yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm going to leave this woman alone, and - but he doesn't, because he can't. He is a very honest, direct, complex, flawed character.

KEYES: Not only does Troy confess his affair to Rose, he then asks her to raise the other woman's baby after she dies on childbirth. James Earl Jones still remembers how the audience reacted.

Mr. JONES: And I'm in front of the audience, and they're laughing and he's a great story teller. But once I bring the bastard child home, especially the women in the audience, begin to hate me. And they begin to talk back at me. And they began to say, drown that damn baby - words like that would come from the audience.

KEYES: Rose agrees to raise the baby, but tells Troy he's a womanless man. Along with the fallout from Troy's affair, the Maxsons also must deal with the smoldering tension between Troy and his son Cory. One can feel it, like a disease eating away at the family's foundation. In this scene from the 1987 Tony Awards Broadcast, Troy's son has played by Courtney B. Vance.

(Soundbite of stage play, "Fences")

Mr. COURTNEY B. VANCE (Actor): (As Cory Maxson) How come you didn't never liked me?

Mr. JONES: (As Troy Maxson) Liked you? Who in the hell ever said I got to like you?

KEYES: Troy orders Cory to come stand in front of him.

Mr. JONES: (As Troy Maxson) I asked you a question. What law is there to say I got to like you?

Mr. VANCE: (As Cory Maxson) None. All right, dad.

KEYES: Troy doesn't provide for his son because he likes him.

(Soundbite of movie, "Fences")

Mr. JONES: (As Troy Maxson) It is my job. It is my responsibility, you understand that? A man got to take care of his family. You live in my house. You sleep your behind on my bedclothes. You put my food in your belly because you are my son. You are my flesh and blood, not because I like you. It is my duty to take care of you. I owe a responsibility. You awake now?

Let's get this thing right now, won't go long any further. I ain't got to like you. Mr. Rand don't give my money come payday because he like me. He give me because he owe me. Now I done give you everything I had to give you. I gave you your life. Your mama and me worked it out between us, and liking your black ass was not a part of the bargain, and don't you try and go through life worried if somebody like you or not. You best make sure that they are doing right by you. You understand what I'm saying, boy?

Mr. VANCE: (As Cory Maxson) Yes, sir.

Ms. TUNIE: Certainly, we know those men who have been brought up, you know, in a very hard and difficult life, and the way that they show love is not the way that you would expect it.

KEYES: Actress Tamara Tunie says Troy is only trying to keep his son from suffering the same disappointments the father went through.

Ms. TUNIE: That is how he expresses his love. And so, you have to see beyond the surface and the harshness of the words and really listen to what he's saying. And I think Troy Maxson is a remarkable man. And certainly, you know, I have met those kinds of men who you think are so harsh and bitter and angry, and it's really, you know, from a deep place of disappointment.

KEYES: James Earl Jones believes the reason Troy's story resonates is that August Wilson's words paint a deft of 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.

Allison Keyes, NPR News.

NORRIS: And you're listening to NPR, National Public Radio.

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