Act One: Scene Four
Mirroring the first scene in the play, Troy and Bono arrive at Troy's house to drink and talk after work on Friday, their payday, two weeks after Act One, scene one. Troy has won his case against the commissioner's office. He has been given a promotion that will make him the first black garbage truck driver in the city. Lyons shows up and asks if Troy wants to hear him play jazz that night. Troy calls jazz, "Chinese music" because it is foreign and unfamiliar to his ears and he does not understand it. Lyons and Bono tease Troy because he does not know how to drive and he cannot read. Lyons surprises Troy by paying him back the ten dollars he borrowed from Troy two Fridays ago.
Gabriel shows up at the house too and continues to talk about how he will be responsible for opening the gates to heaven on Judgment Day. Bono and Troy remember their dead fathers and their childhood experiences of becoming men when they left home in the south and moved north. Lyons benefits from the stories, learning details about his father's life that he has not heard before.
Cory comes home enraged after finding out that Troy went to the high school football coach, Coach Zellman and told him that Cory may not play on the team anymore. Cory displays his first aggressive verbal attack on Troy by saying that Troy is holding him back from his dreams because Troy is afraid that Cory will be better than Troy. Troy warns Cory that his insubordinance is a strike against him and he better not "strike out."
Wilson's choice to set the action on another Friday reestablishes the pattern of Troy and Bono's habitual behavior and offers a useful backdrop to compare how far the plot has progressed since the play started. The return of the setting to Troy and Bono's payday creates the feeling that their life has a continuous pattern, a homecoming, and a cycle. Bono and Troy's excitement exceeds the enthusiasm they shared in the first scene. Troy's promotion rouses a renewed energy from both of the men. The repetition of the setting emphasizes the uniqueness of the exciting news of Troy's promotion and his success in challenging the racist practices of his employers because it helps to illustrate the infrequency with which great, life-changing events occur in their lives. The thrill of Troy and Bono's news temporarily suspends the plot elements planted in the previous scenes. For an afternoon, things seem to be looking up for the Maxson family and for Troy. But because Wilson has already exposed elements that are bound to produce conflict such as Troy's affair with Alberta, Cory's wish to go to college and play football, and Gabe's warnings, we know the good times will not last for long.
The reveries Troy and Bono spin about their childhood experiences of their fathers also contribute to this suspension of the forward momentum of the tragic action. They increase the nuances of character by providing a revealing back story that informs our understanding of Troy and Bono's life compared to the lives of men a generation younger like Cory and Lyons. Lyons' appearance in the scene and his love of jazz reminds Troy of how different things were for Troy. Troy refers to Lyons' passion—jazz music—as "Chinese music" because jazz music is a modern phenomenon beyond his comprehension. His use of the word, "Chinese" to describe jazz music is a derogatory remark that backfires on Troy because it says more about his own failure to appreciate an ingenious invention by people of his own culture (and his lack of appreciation for Chinese culture) than it insults Lyons. Similarly, Lyons and Bono expose other weaknesses of Troy when they tease him for being illiterate and unable to drive. Wilson makes an argument here that Troy's lack of education and lack of worldliness or cultural literacy contribute to his black and white decisions about others' lifestyles and therefore, act as additional components to the roots of Troy's conflict with other characters in the play.
Troy and Bono's memories provide Lyons with an unwritten history of his culture. Slavery displaced many African American families. Slave owners often forced African Americans to live far apart from parents, spouses, siblings, and young children by selling some family members to distant plantations. Troy and Bono's fathers were likely born into slavery or slave-like conditions. Their fathers' parents were almost definitely born into slavery and may not have had a nuclear family to model as an adult. The family units in Bono and Troy's lives were fractured by wandering parents who sought solace in escape from parental responsibilities, a lack of commitment, a zealous work ethic and/or violence.
Troy and Bono's fathers are representative of the phenomena in African American culture that took place after slavery was abolished and after promises made by the Reconstruction era failed to provide the necessary infrastructure to help the homeless, impoverished, dislocated blacks assimilate to the free-market culture and economy. Bono describes his father as having the "walking blues," a condition that Bono blames for his own fear of having children. Bono uses this term to describe his father's behavior during the Great Migration, when thousands of blacks chose to walk to a new life in a free city north of where they lived in slavery or slave-like conditions of sharecropping. Many blacks walked on foot from the south to a city in the north, some even going as far as Canada. Even if Bono's father wasn't part of this movement north, he represents the effects of this history.
Bono and Troy and Lyons and Cory share the commonality of a similar struggle. All of these men grapple with their identities in relation to their father's life choices. Bono, afraid of wandering like his father, and disappointing a child because of a lack of commitment to the child's mother and family, does not repeat his father's shortcomings. Bono is a devoted husband who perhaps regrets his lack of children because not having them was a decision he made based on his fears of inheriting negative traits of his father. Troy inherited useful yet unfortunate traits from his dad. He gained a terrific sense of responsibility to his family from his father, whom he respects more than his mother (who left their home), but he learned little about love from his father. Troy's father expressed love only as duty and Troy repeats this philosophy with Cory. Lyons grew up largely without Troy who was in jail when Lyons was a child. Lyons feels confident that his choice to be a musician while not practical, is a freedom that he should enjoy when so many generations before him were forced into life decisions. Lyons and Troy differ on this point because Lyons was a product of his mother and his generation, and Troy had little chance to influence his identity. The lack of a paternal presence in Bono, Troy and Lyons' lives shaped their view of themselves and their life choices.
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