by Alyssa Reeves
Written for ENGL345 (History of Drama)
Distorted Dilemmas: Depicting Race Issues through Drama
How would a person’s world change if he or she were able to trade out the skin he or she is in? Though America is supposed to be a country where there is “liberty and justice for all,” individuals are continually being prejudiced against because of their beliefs, customs, lifestyles, and skin color. For a girl who attended a high school where only two students were not white, it is hard to imagine the everyday challenges faced by a person of minority status. One of the best ways one can learn about the encounters of others is by reading about their experiences. In August Wilson’s Fences and Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit, racial issues are a major theme and the characters are forced to react to racism, take action against unfair circumstances, and survive as victims in a world in which they are not accepted.
First, in his play Fences, August Wilson offers a look into the lives of Troy Maxson and his family. Troy Maxson is living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife, Rose, and his sons, Lyons and Cory. “‘Maxson’ is a compressed reference to the Mason-Dixon line. Troy’s last name represents a fusion of Troy’s history in the south and present life in the north that are inextricably linked” (Henderson). Troy was thrown out of his house when he was 14 and has served in prison for 15 years for petty crimes. He met Rose after he got out of prison and began playing baseball. Troy played in the Negro Leagues, but was too old to be permitted into the major leagues by the time integration came along. He currently works as a garbage collector. One of the best ways to describe Troy Maxson would be as a family man. He is very committed to the welfare of his family and makes certain to provide for them. The reader is forced to question his dedication to his family, however, when he has an affair with another woman, Alberta. Troy comes across as a stubborn man as he refuses to let his son Cory play football on a scholarship. In the end, Troy gets into a fight with Cory and throws him out of the house. It is not long after this Troy passes away and his family is left with only his memory.
It is important to examine the motives behind Troy Maxson’s character. Although he is a strong foundation for his family, he is also stern and unforgiving. His tough love is shown when he refuses to let Cory play football. Troy says, “The colored guy got to be twice as good before he get on the team. That’s why I don’t want you to get all tied up in them sports” (Wilson 774). Why would a father refuse to allow his son to chase after his biggest dreams? The answer is simple: Troy Maxson understands the heartache of being rejected. Though Rose claims the issue was a matter of age, Troy steadfastly declares it was not. “What do you mean too old? Don’t come telling me I was too old. I just wasn’t the right color” (Wilson 775). It is effortless for onlookers to place to blame on other causes, but for the victim of racial injustice, nothing hurts as much as being shorn of the American dream.
Other characters in Fences are victims in their own unique ways. Obviously Cory is a prime example of a sufferer. He is overwhelmingly passionate about playing football and is given the opportunity to play, only to be hindered by his father’s disapproval. Troy’s past corrupts his thinking and he tells Cory, “The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway” (Wilson 774). Also, Troy’s brother, Gabriel, suffers every day after being injured in World War II, causing him to have a metal plate in his head. He believes he is the Archangel Gabriel. Though he is accepted by his family, he is often arrested for disturbing the peace while Rose suffers in silence of her own. Rose puts up with Troy’s obstinacy every day and ends up taking care of Raynell, the daughter Troy had with Alberta, who died during childbirth.
Furthermore, Troy does not give in to discrimination. He does not put up a white flag when faced with unfair situations, and this goes to show that he has faith in the justice in the United States of America. As a garbage collector, he realizes all of the colored employees are required to do the lifting and the white employees get to drive the trucks. He confronts his boss, Mr. Rand. “‘Why? Why you go the white mens driving and the colored lifting? You think only white fellows got sense enough to drive a truck. That ain’t no paper job! Hell, anybody can drive a truck’” (Wilson 767). Mr. Rand eventually allows Troy to drive the trucks. His new duty proves to be no more rewarding than his first task, but Troy has set a standard for equality that will remain throughout the company’s future.
In addition, August Wilson was able to write such a captivating drama about an African American family surviving in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania because of his own personal experiences. Wilson himself was born and raised in Philadelphia and his father drifted in and out of his family. Wilson’s mother’s name was Daisy; he named Troy’s wife Rose (Henderson).
Moreover, racial issues are also present in Luis Valdez’s play Zoot Suit. Zoot Suit is based on actual events which occurred in Los Angeles during World War II. In 1942, the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial was underway and Mexicans endured discrimination on a regular basis. The main character in Zoot Suit, Hank Reyna, is part of the 38th Street Gang. At the beginning of the play, he and several of his companions are arrested on suspicion of being involved in a murder at Sleepy Lagoon. The boys are found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment in San Quentin. George Shearer and Alice Bloomfield fight on the legal side of the situation for the boys. The group ends up winning their appeal and return to the barrio. The story ends rather sadly when Hank goes on to get involved in crime and drugs before dying “of the trauma of his life” (Valdez 763).
The first example of obvious racism in Zoot Suit occurs during the second scene when Sergeant Smith is helping to arrest members of the gang. He sees a sailor and tells him to get out of there and to take his girlfriend with him. Henry speaks up, “What about my girl?” and Lieutenant Edwards replies, “No dice, Henry. Not this time. Back in line” (Valdez 741). It is apparent the police allow the sailor and his girlfriend to go free because they are white. Henry Reyna is forced to stay with the group because he is Mexican.
Next, when Henry is sitting in the interrogation room, he complains to Pachucho that he did not do anything wrong. Pachuco responds, “You’re Henry Reyna, ese—Hank Reyna!. . . .“That’s what they got on you” (Valdez 742). So here, Pachuco is validating the idea that Henry Reyna is guilty simply because of his name (which represents his race). In the next scene, this notion is supported with the conversation between Hank and Lieutenant Edwards. Lieutenant Edwards says, “Come on, Hank, you know why you’re here,” and Henry replies “Yeah. I’m a Mexican” (Valdez 742). Lieutenant Edwards shrugs this comment off, not wanting to admit the present racial profiling.
Finally, Lieutenant Edwards makes a very racial comment to the press in scene five. The press is questioning if the lieutenant was the first to arrest Henry Reyna. Lieutenant Edwards admits that he was and that he noticed that Henry Reyna had the potential to be a great leader. He continued, “However…You can’t change the spots on a leopard” (Valdez 745). Edwards is not coming right out and saying “Henry Reyna will never be a leader because he is a Mexican,” but he is definitely implying it.
The Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and the Zoot Suit Riots are carefully documented as distinct parts of Chicano history. Unlike Fences, Luis Valdez’s play chronicles actual events which can be traced back to a specific time in United States history. Luis Valdez used characters that parallel real-life people. For example, in his play, Alice Bloomfield leads the Sleep Lagoon Defense Committee. The actual woman who did this was Alice McGrath. Henry Reyna is a character who portrays the actual Henry Reyes Leyvas. Ben Margolis, the lawyer who represented the Sleepy Lagoon defendants, remembers Henry Leyvas fondly.
person, under different circumstances would have moved toward leadership. He was very bright, not much education; he had
great emotions. But most important was...
that of all of them, he had the greatest sense that he was a member of a group
that was being walked on, being
discriminated against, and that he was going to fight against it...he was going to carry on the fight
wherever he was...regardless of what would happen to him, he was totally
courageous and [showed] no physical fear as far as you could tell." (People and Events…)
Luis Valdez accurately illustrates the actual Henry with his fictional Henry Reyna. Though Valdez had just been born around the time all of the events occurred, he grew up and attended college in California where the population was made up of a good percentage of Mexicans. Valdez dedicated a good amount of his time lecturing “about the importance of Chicano-produced media in countering negative ethnic stereotypes” (Luis Valdez). Perhaps Valdez did not experience the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial for himself, but his work opens the doors for it to be experienced by others just as well.
Thus, Zoot Suit and Fences are two examples of playwrights’ success at portraying the reality of racial issues in the United States. The characters are forced to react to racism, take action against unfair circumstances, and survive as victims in a world in which they are not accepted. Only a small percent of people were actually able to experience these situations first-hand, so the best way to learn about these affairs is by reading about them in hopes to open the readers’ eyes to a world previously unseen. Reading Zoot Suit and Fences does just that.
Henderson, Monica A. Sparknote on Fences. 12 Nov. 2006 <http://www.sparknotes.com/
"Luis Valdez." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 10 Nov 2006. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 20 Nov 2006 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Luis_Valdez&oldid=86840732>.
“People and Events: Enrique ‘Henry’ Reyes Leyvas (1923-1971).” 2002. PBS American Experience. 19 Nov. 2006 <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/zoot/eng_peopleevents/p_leyvas.html>
Valdez, Luis. From “Zoot Suit.” The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama. Ed. W.B. Worthen. Boston: Thomsen Wadsworth, 2007. 740 – 763.
Wilson, August. From “Fences.” The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama. Ed. W.B. Worthen. Boston: Thomsen Wadsworth, 2007. 766-790.