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Fences

Fences

AUGUST WILSON 1983

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

PLOT SUMMARY

CHARACTERS

THEMES

STYLE

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

CRITICISM

SOURCES

FURTHER READING

The first staged reading of August Wilson’s play Fences occurred in 1983 at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center’s National Playwright’s Conference. Wilson’s drama opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985 and on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre in 1987. Fences was well-received, winning four Antionette (“Tony”) Perry Awards, including best play. The work also won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the John Gassner Outer Critics’ Circle Award. Wilson was also selected as Artist of the Year by the Chicago Tribune.

Fences was a huge success with both critics and viewers, and it drew black audiences to the theatre in much larger numbers than usual. Because the play had four years of pre-production development before it opened on Broadway, Wilson had a chance to tighten and revise the action, watching his characters mature into lifelike creations. James Earl Jones played the role of Troy in the first staging of Fences on Broadway. Jones—and many black audience members—recognized and identified with Wilson’s use of language to define his black characters. In an interview with Heather Henderson in Theater, Jones stated that “Few writers can capture dialect as dialogue in a manner as interesting and accurate as August’s.”

Reviewers also noted Wilson’s ability to create believable characters. In his review for Newsweek, Allan Wallach noted that it is the men who dominate the script and bring it to life—singling out Jones, whom Wallach noted, is at his best “in the bouts of drinking and bantering.” It is Jones’s performance that creates “a rich portrait of a man who scaled down his dreams to fit inside his run-down yard.” Clive Barnes, writing for the New York Post, said that Wilson provides “the strongest, most passionate American dramatic writing since Tennessee Williams” (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). Fences, said Barnes, “gave me one of the richest experiences I have ever had in the theater.”

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel, on April 27, 1945, in a ghetto area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, known as “The Hill.” Wilson’s white father, a German baker named August Kittel, abandoned the family when Wilson was a child. Wilson’s mother, Daisy Wilson Kittel, worked as a cleaning woman to raise her six children. Later, after Wilson’s mother had remarried, his stepfather moved the family to a white neighborhood where Wilson was subjected to unbridled racism. At age 15, Wilson dropped out of school after being falsely accused of plagiarism; after that episode, he continued his education on his own, with periods of extensive reading at the public library.

Wilson began his career writing poetry and short stories but switched to drama in 1978 when he was invited to write plays for a black theatre in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Several fellowships enabled Wilson to concentrate on writing plays as a fulltime venture. Although his early efforts, Fullerton Street (1980), Black Bart and the Sacred Hills (1981), and Jitney (1982) received little attention, he gained recognition with his 1984 play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which was accepted for a staged reading at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center’s National Playwright’s Conference in 1982. The following year, Fences was also presented at the O’Neill conference and in 1986 Joe Turner’s Come and Gone became Wilson’s third play to be produced at the conference.

Each of these plays followed their initial readings at the O’Neill with productions at the Yale Repertory Theatre and later stagings on Broadway. In 1987, The Piano Lesson opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre; Two Trains Running followed three years later. Wilson’s Seven Guitars opened at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 1995. Wilson

has stated that he envisions his plays as representative of the black experience in America, since each play is set in a different decade.

Wilson married for the first time in 1969, but the marriage ended after three years and the birth of a daughter, Sakina Ansari. He married for a second time in 1981; this marriage ended in 1990. Wilson has won several honors for his writing, including the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, an Antionette (“Tony”) Perry Award, and a Pulitzer Prize for Fences; The Piano Lesson was also awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1990. Several of his other works have been nominated for Tony Awards.

PLOT SUMMARY

Act I, scene i

The play opens with Troy and Bono engaged in their usual Friday night ritual of drinking and talking. Troy has made a formal complaint to his bosses that only white men are permitted to drive the garbage trucks for the waste disposal company at which both men work. The two men finish their discussion of work, and Bono asks Troy about a woman, Alberta, he suspects Troy of seeing. Troy denies that he would risk losing his wife, Rose, but Bono does not give up so easily and reminds Troy that he has been seen at Alberta’s house when he said he was elsewhere.

Their conversation is interrupted by Troy’s wife, Rose, who enters the yard. Their conversation about where to shop is interrupted by Lyons’s entrance. Lyons is Troy’s son by a previous marriage. He has come by because he knows that his father gets paid on Fridays; he is in need of a loan and asks his father for ten dollars. Troy pointedly notes that Lyons needs to get a job. Lyons’s reply is that his father had no hand in raising him, and thus, he has no right to chastise or complain about how Lyons is living his life. Rose intervenes and gives Lyons the money.

Act I, scene ii

Rose is hanging clothes on the line. Troy enters and they begin to banter about Rose’s habit of playing numbers (a form of betting, like a lottery). Troy thinks it foolish and a waste of money, but Rose finds this little bit of gambling to be a harmless diversion that occasionally offers a small reward. Their conversation moves to Troy’s inquiry about the presence of their son, Cory. At that moment, Troy’s brother, Gabriel, enters the yard. He is singing and carrying a bowl of discarded fruit and vegetables that he has picked up and is now attempting to sell. Gabriel was injured in the war and is now mentally disabled. Gabriel is worried that his older brother is angry that he has moved out and into his own place. As Gabriel exits, still singing, Rose reassures Troy that he has done all he can to care for his brother.

Act I, scene iii

Four hours later, Rose is taking the dried clothes down from the line. Cory enters and is directed by his mother to get into the house and start the chores that he ignored when he went to football practice.

Troy enters the yard and after hearing that Cory is home, yells for his son to come out of the house. An argument ensues between father and son about Cory’s concentration on football at the expense of his other obligations: school, chores, and a parttime job he has just quit. Troy demands complete control over Cory and insists that he quit football. Cory responds by asking his father why he doesn’t like his son. Troy evades a direct answer, and, instead, he replies that his son is provided with a home and food because he, Troy, fulfills his responsibility to his family. The confrontation ends with Troy telling Cory to get back down to the supermarket and get his job back.

When Rose returns, Troy explains that he wants his son to do better than his father and to have a better job than that of a garbage man. Rose tries to soften Troy by reminding him that he missed his chance to be a professional athlete because he was too old, but Troy is unwilling to admit that she is right. The scene ends with Troy’s declaration that he simply moves through life, existing from one Friday night to the next.

Act I, scene iv

It is another Friday night, two weeks later, and Cory is on his way to play football. He ignores Rose when she confronts him about the chores he has left undone and states that he’ll do them later. Troy and Bono enter the yard after Cory leaves, and Troy announces that he has been made a driver. At that moment Lyons comes to repay the money he borrowed two weeks ago. Most of this scene is devoted to the issue of Cory’s future.

Troy launches into an autobiographical story that explains much of his behavior. The audience learns about Troy’s brutal father and that he has been on his own since he was fourteen. The audience also learns that Troy spent fifteen years in jail and that is where he met Bono. The scene ends with a confrontation between Troy and Cory, who has just entered the yard. Troy accuses Cory of lying and orders him to get his old job back and quit the football team.

Act II, scene i

Troy has just returned from bailing Gabriel out of jail. Bono is with him, and, in response to his friend’s concern about Rose, Troy admits that he has been seeing another woman and that she is going to have his baby. Rose enters the yard as Bono is leaving. Troy realizes that with a child coming, he must accept responsibility for what he has done. He tells Rose that he is to be the father to another woman’s child. His response to her anger and pain is an admission that the other woman offers an escape from his responsibilities. She makes him forget the endless repetition of his life for a few moments. The scene ends in a confrontation between Rose, Troy, and Cory that stops just short of physical violence.

Act II, scene ii

It is six months later, and it is clear that the relationship between Rose and Troy has been severed. Although Troy gives his wife his paycheck, he is spending almost all his time with Alberta. Troy and Rose argue, but their fight is interrupted by a phone call telling them that the baby has been born but that the mother has died. The scene ends with Troy yelling at death, vowing to build a fence around his house and those he loves to keep death away.

Act II, scene iii

Troy returns with the infant, who he has named Raynell, and he and Rose agree that she will raise the child, who should not be punished for her parents’ sins.

Act II, scene iv

It is two months later and much has changed. Cory has graduated and is looking for a job, but Lyons tells him that jobs are scarce. Rose is busy with her church activities; she has found something to fill the space within that Troy had occupied before his deception. A brief conversation between Troy and Bono reveals that the two friends have drifted apart. Troy is a driver and Bono is still picking up the trash on a different route. After Bono leaves, Cory returns and there is a final argument between father and son. Clearly Cory blames Troy for his mother’s pain and for his own disappointment. The argument turns violent when Cory attempts to strike at Troy with a baseball bat; he misses and Troy seizes the bat but stops just short of striking his son. In the end, Cory leaves the house for good, and Troy ends the scene with a taunt for death to come.

Act II, scene v

It is seven years later and the family has gathered for Troy’s funeral. Cory arrives in his marine uniform. When he states that he will not go to Troy’s funeral, his mother convinces him that he has an obligation to go. But it is the singing of Troy’s favorite song with the child, Raynell, that really convinces Cory to put the past behind him. The scene ends with all the principal characters in the yard. Gabriel announces he has come to blow the trumpet for Troy’s admittance to Heaven through St. Peter’s gate. The horn’s mouthpiece is broken, however, and instead Gabriel begins to dance and howl as the stage darkens.

CHARACTERS

Jim Bono

Bono is Troy Maxson’s closest friend. They met while in prison and spent fifteen years together locked inside. Troy has been the leader whom Bono has willingly followed. They work together hauling garbage until Troy is promoted to driver. That event, combined with Troy’s preoccupation with his pregnant mistress, serves to create the first serious discord between the two men in nearly thirty-four years of friendship. Bono is very concerned with Troy’s dalliance with another woman and the risk it poses to his friend’s marriage. Jim’s wife, Lucille, is never seen on stage, but he speaks of her with obvious affection and admiration; she has tamed his wanderlust. Bono’s positive relationship with Lucille demonstrates that a man has the ability to change the direction of his life.

Cory Maxson

Cory is the Maxsons’ teenage son. When the play opens he is being actively recruited for a college football scholarship. His father feels that he is spending too much time at practice and ignoring his other responsibilities. Cory represents all the possibilities his father never had, but he also represents Troy’s unmet dreams. Troy wants his son to achieve a future that does not include hauling garbage. Yet the father is unwilling to let the son attempt something that may bring him success; Troy is afraid that the world of white-dominated sports will only break Cory’s heart.

When Cory quits his job to concentrate on football, his father retaliates by going to the coach and forbidding Cory to play. After a particularly heated confrontation, Cory leaves home. At the play’s end, he returns after an absence of seven years for his father’s funeral. Cory has spent the last six years as a Marine, but he is now considering a new direction that includes marriage and a new job. Initially he does not want to attend his father’s funeral, the chasm is too wide, and he believes his controlling father never loved him. He eventually realizes that he must put the past behind him, forgive his father, and attend the funeral.

Gabriel Maxson

Gabriel is Troy’s brother. Troy has helped care for Gabriel since World War II during which his brother received a debilitating head injury. Gabriel’s mental capacity has been diminished by the injury and left him believing that he is the archangel Gabriel. Troy used Gabriel’s disability settlement to buy the house in which the family lives, and he continues to receive a part of Gabriel’s monthly benefit checks as rent. When the play opens, Gabriel has just moved into his own lodgings. His life is filled with his singing and his expressed wait for St. Peter to call upon Gabriel to open the gates of heaven.

After bailing Gabriel out of jail several times, Troy finally has him committed to a mental hospital. At the play’s end, it is Gabriel who brings some resolution as he calls for the gate of heaven to open and admit Troy. Gabriel attempts to blow a trumpet to herald Troy into heaven, finds that the mouthpiece is broken, and begins a jumping about and howling as the stage darkens.

Lyons Maxson

Lyons is Troy’s thirty-four-year-old son from a previous marriage; he was raised by his mother after Troy was sent to jail, and he has little respect for his father’s advice. He does, however, have need of his father’s money, frequently arriving at the house on Troy’s paydays. Lyons hopes for a career as a musician and is disinterested in any work that would interfere with his goal. Consequently, he is unemployed and is supported by his wife, Bonnie. Lyons knows little about his father, but when he hears that his father has been on his own since he was fourteen, Lyons is finally impressed enough to pay attention as his father speaks.

Raynell Maxson

Raynell is the child Troy fathered with his mistress, Alberta. When Alberta dies giving birth, he brings the three-day old infant home for Rose to raise. She is seven years old when her father dies, but she has come to represent all the family’s hopes for a better future. In the final scene, it is Raynell and Cory’s singing of their father’s favorite song that helps heal the pain of Cory’s angry memories of his father.

Rose Maxson

Rose is Troy’s wife of eighteen years. She is ten years younger than him and a strong woman who is devoted to her husband. Her devotion ends, however, when Troy tells her of his affair with Alberta and his impending fatherhood. Rose wants the fence built around their house so that she can keep her family safe within its confines. She tries to mediate the conflicts that arise between Troy and his sons. It is Rose who loans money to Lyons, and it is Rose who tries to soften Troy’s unconditional control over Cory’s life. She is deeply wounded by Troy’s affair and although they continue living in the same house, their loving relationship as husband and wife is over. Rose agrees to raise the child, Raynell, because she does not believe that the child should suffer for the sin of her parents. She substitutes religion for the companionship of marriage, and by the time Raynell is born, Rose has become an active member of her church. It is Rose who calls for family unity and healing at the play’s end; she urges all the family members and friends to forgive and remember the good things about Troy.

Troy Maxson

Troy is the principal character. He is fifty-three when the play begins. He has led a hard life, raised by an abusive father and later jailed for robbery and murder. During the fifteen years he spent in jail, Troy became an accomplished baseball player. But after his release from jail Troy was too old to play in the newly-integrated major leagues. He is bitter and resentful at the opportunities lost because of the color of his skin and is desperate to protect Cory from the same sort of disappointment. Troy lives in the past and fails to recognize that the world has changed. His father was brutal and controlling, and although Troy loves Cory, he knows of no other way to bring up a son. Thus he repeats the mistakes of the previous generation.

Troy feels a need to control every element of his life and even declares that he will fight death if necessary. His affair with Alberta represents his attempt to escape the responsibility he feels for wife, son, and home. Unable to open up to those that he loves, Troy keeps much of his emotion inside, building imaginary fences between himself and his family and friends. While he realizes the financial responsibility of being the head of a family, he fails to grasp the emotional part of the job. Troy finally succeeds in isolating himself from his wife, his brother, his sons, and his friend.

THEMES

Death

In Fences, death is a character. Rather than the elusive unknown, death becomes an object that Troy attempts to battle. The unfinished fence that Troy is building around his home is completed only when Troy feels threatened by death. In one of the stories he tells, Troy relates how he once wrestled with death and won. When the simmering conflict between Troy and Cory finally erupts and the boy leaves his father’s house for good, it is death that Troy calls upon to do battle. And in the last scene, it is death that unites the family and helps bring resolution to their lives. When the family meets again at Troy’s funeral, they are finally given a chance to bury the pain and disappointments of their lives.

Duty and Responsibility

Troy Maxson is a man who assumes the responsibilities of father, husband, and provider. In addition, he looks after his disabled brother, Gabriel. Though he faces these responsibilities, he is also overwhelmed by them, seeking escape when it is offered to him. When it is revealed that Alberta, the other woman that Troy has been seeing, is pregnant, Troy responds that he is not ducking the responsibility of what he has done. He accepts the obligation he owes to both his wife and his mistress.

When Rose asks why Troy needed another woman, his reply is that Alberta was an escape from his responsibilities. She did not have a roof that needed fixing; her house was a place where he could forget that he was someone’s husband, someone’s father, someone’s employee. Troy feels the weight of responsibility so heavily that he can see only endless weeks of labor, endless paychecks to be cashed, endless Fridays blending into one another. When Alberta dies giving birth, Troy assumes responsibility for the infant and brings her to his home. In turn, Rose agrees to raise and care for the child. In the end it is the responsibility each member of the family feels toward the others that brings resolution to the story.

Fences

Fences represent many different things in Wilson’s drama. Rose thinks the partially built fence around the house will keep her loved ones safe inside. But for Troy, the fence is a way to keep unwanted intruders out. After Alberta’s death, he completes the fence as a means to keep death from entering and hurting his loved ones. When Troy played baseball, he was never content to hit the ball into the stands. His hits always had to go over the fence. And yet, Troy builds a fence around Cory to keep him from his goals and desires. Troy’s efforts at controlling his son create an imaginary fence that keeps the boy separate from his family for seven years. There are similar fences between Troy and his loved ones; in one way or another he has kept them separated from a part of himself.

When Troy tells his life story, it is a tale of penitentiary walls behind which he was a prisoner for fifteen years. Bono was also confined within these walls. By Act II, the walls of a mental hospital will separate Gabriel from his family. Troy also sees white America having a fence that keeps blacks contained, apart from the good life that whites enjoy. It is the fence that kept him from realizing his dreams and the fence that makes blacks garbage collectors while whites advance to better positions such as driver.

In the sense of physical setting, the fence around Troy’s house also contains the action of the play. Everything takes place in the yard; all of the scenes and the dialogue occur within the boundaries of the fence.

Friendship

The friendship between Troy and Bono is the first relationship shown in the play. Their conversations provide a glimpse into Troy’s thoughts. Bono has been following Troy’s lead since they met in prison more than thirty years earlier. Troy has been a role model for Bono, but Bono serves as a conscience for Troy. It is Bono who first alerts the audience to Troy’s extramarital affair, and it is Bono who questions the wisdom of Troy’s actions. The friendship is tested when Troy is promoted to driver and put on another route. When questioned about his absence from Troy’s house, Bono replies that it is the new job that keeps them apart. But there is also a hint that Troy’s betrayal of Rose has changed the dynamics of their friendship.

Limitations and Opportunities

At the heart of Troy’s unhappiness is his disappointment at not being able to play professional baseball. Troy became an accomplished ball player while in prison. He was good enough to play in the

TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY

  • What is the nature of the conflict between Cory and Troy? Research the options for black athletes who were recruited by colleges in the 1950s. Do you find that Troy’s reservations about Cory’s future as a ballplayer have merit?
  • Troy cannot read and so the oral tradition is an important means of communication for him. He tells his life story in Act I, scene iv. But he also tells part of his story through song. Research the role of storytelling as a part of the black experience. Consider also how the oral tradition has been replaced in many cultures by the printed page. Do you think that the oral tradition is a disappearing part of the American cultural experience?
  • In Fences, Troy’s description of the devil eventually evolves into a description of a white salesman who cheats his black customers because they are too afraid to question his pronouncements, and thus, they allow themselves to be cheated. Examine the commercial relationship between whites and blacks in the 1950s. Is Troy’s cynicism justified by the facts?
  • Early in Wilson’s play, music and athletics are singled out the best opportunities for young black men to escape the ghetto existence of black urban life. Later, Cory joins the Marines, but is this an escape? In 1964, the United States is beginning a build-up of military strength in Vietnam, it will evolve into a war that will eventually be lost. What exactly did the military offer young black men? Research the role of the black soldier in Vietnam and consider if the percentage of blacks who died in that war represented an unequal sacrifice of life.

Negro leagues, but his true desire was to play major league ball. Troy felt he was excluded because, at the time, black players were still not accepted, but the story is more complex than Troy wants to believe. The fifteen years that Troy spent in prison made him too old for the major leagues. Troy ignores this argument, since to acknowledge that he was too old is to accept partial responsibility for not being able to play; it was his own actions that led to a fifteen year prison term, a period during which his youth slipped away. It is easier for Troy to blame a system that discriminates against black players than to admit that he lacked either the talent or the youth to play major league baseball.

Troy’s son, Cory, also has the opportunity for a better life through athletics. But Troy is so bitter over his own lack of opportunity that he holds his son back from any success he might achieve. When Cory is recruited for a college football scholarship, it is his father who forbids Cory to play. Troy is unable to accept that his son might succeed where he had failed—and Cory accuses his father of just such a motivation. But it is more than a desire to control Cory’s success that is at the heart of Troy’s actions. He truly fails to see that the world has changed in the past twenty years. Black men are now playing professional sports with white men. The restrictions that kept the two races apart athletically have eased. A football scholarship would mean more than playing a sport; it would be an opportunity for education and a chance to advance to a better world.

Race and Racism

In a story that Troy tells in the play, the devil is represented as a white business owner who takes advantage of his black customers. The setting for Fences is just before the racial tensions of the 1960s erupt. Troy is a garbage man. He has noticed that only white men are promoted to driver, and, although he possesses no driver’s license, Troy complains about the injustice of a system that favors one race while excluding another. Because he has complained, Troy is promoted, but the result is that he no longer works with his friends and the camaraderie of the workplace is lost. Troy also feels that his dream to play professional baseball was destroyed because he was a black player in a white world. Because he has spent a lifetime being excluded, Troy cannot see any advantage for his son when college recruiters come to watch Cory play football. Troy cannot trust the white man, the devil, and so, he forbids his son to play football.

STYLE

Act

A major division in a drama. In Greek plays the sections of the drama signified by the appearance of the chorus and were usually divided into five acts. This is the formula for most serious drama from the Greeks to the Romans to Elizabethan playwrights like William Shakespeare. The five acts denote the structure of dramatic action. They are exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. The five act structure was followed until the nineteenth century when Henrik Ibsen (A Doll’s House) combined some of the acts. Fences is a two act play. The exposition and complication are combined in the first act when the audience learns of Troy’s affair with another woman and of the conflict between father and son, the role sports plays in each man’s life. The climax occurs in the second act when Troy must admit to having fathered a child with his mistress. The climax to the father-son friction also occurs in the second act when the conflict between Troy and Cory escalates, and Cory leaves his father’s home for good. The catastrophe also occurs in this act when the players assemble for Troy’s funeral and Cory is finally able to deal with his resentment and accept his father’s failings.

Setting

The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The location for Fences is an urban city in 1957 America. The action occurs over a period of several months and then jumps ahead seven years for the last scene. The action is further reduced to one set, the yard of the Maxson home.

Character

A person in a dramatic work. The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual’s morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multi-faceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. “Characterization” is the process of creating a lifelike person from an author’s imagination. To accomplish this, the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation. For instance, in the beginning of Fences Troy seems to accept the responsibilities he has acquired. He appears content with his marriage and comfortable in providing for his family and caring for Gabriel. As the action progresses, however, it becomes clear that Troy yearns for escape from these responsibilities. He finds this escape with Alberta but at the cost of his marriage.

Conflict

The conflict is the issue(s) to be resolved in the play. It usually occurs between two characters, but it can also occur between a character and society (as it does in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible). Conflict serves to create tension in a plot—it is often the motivating force that drive a plot. For instance, in Fences there is a clear conflict between Cory’s desire to play footfall and the disappointments that his father felt when his dreams of success in professional sports were never realized. There is also conflict between Troy and his wife when she discovers that he has fathered a child with another woman. And finally, Troy’s disappointment in sports represents the conflict between a largely whitedominated organization, professional sports, and a talented black man who feels he has been cheated and deprived of success. This conflict provides one of the fences that isolates black athletes from opportunities available to white Americans.

Metaphor

Metaphor is an analogy that identifies one object with another and ascribes to the first object the qualities of the second. For example, the fence is a metaphor for the walls that confine Troy and Bono to prison. There are fences (though unseen) between Troy and his family. It is also a metaphor for the white society that confines blacks and restricts their opportunities. In this drama, baseball is also a metaphor for Troy’s life. His successes are hits over the fence, but his failures are strike-outs.

Plot

This term refers to the pattern of events. Generally plots should have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also be a series of episodes connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of Fences is the story of a black family divided by the loss and anger of past and present disappointments. But the themes are those of family unity and love and racial intolerance.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Professional Athletics

By 1957, the year in which Fences is set, black athletes had become an integrated part of professional and college sports, at least on the surface. The all-white teams of the World War II—and previous—years began to include blacks in 1947 when Jackie Robinson became the first black to play professional baseball since the color line was drawn in the 1890s. But the change still did not bring the same opportunity and equality as blacks might have hoped. Black leagues began to falter and disappear as more blacks began to support the now integrated ball teams. Troy Maxson, who had played in the Negro Leagues, found the change to integrated leagues had come too late; he was now too old to play professional ball.

The Negro Leagues had been financial disasters for players; salaries were inadequate to support a family. But, ten years after integration, the major leagues did not prove to be a financial bonanza for black players either. The huge salaries that were to become the hallmark of professional sports in the 1980s and 1990s simply did not exist in the late 1950s. The picture for college athletics was also different for blacks than for whites. Black players were not always permitted to live in campus housing, and when they traveled to games, black athletes were sometimes refused accommodations at hotels where the team was staying. Instead, black players were dropped off at the YMCA or lodged with black families. Given this knowledge, it is little wonder that Troy is suspicious of the recruiters who want to seduce his son with college scholarships and the possibility of a career in professional sports.

Employment

When the flood of immigrants poured into the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century, they found opportunity and employment in factories, offices, and small business. The white work force was plentiful and employers took advantage of the availability of the eager new citizens, who came expecting that hard work would make it possible to marry, raise a family, and live the American Dream. But for blacks, who were also moving into large northern cities in huge numbers, the American Dream remained an elusive possibility, just beyond their grasp.

Troy admits that had he not been able to use his brother’s disability benefit, he would not have been able to purchase a home, even though he had been working hard for nearly twenty years. With the availability of a large white work force, blacks were too often the last hired and the first fired. In addition, many black workers lacked the training necessary to get ahead. The job of hauling garbage is available to blacks, but even within that job, there is a division of work by race. White employees drive trucks; black employees load the garbage. Troy cannot read and does not have a driver’s license, but he breaks through the color barrier to win a driver’s job because he complains that there are no black drivers. The union, which protects his job when he complains, is the one ally the black workers have.

Housing

Because of limited job opportunities, most blacks did not earn enough money to own their own homes. But in 1957 the American Dream became a reality for many white families. In the post-war economy, home ownership for whites was booming. The World War II G.I. bill had made it possible for returning servicemen to go to college. These better educated men found successful careers that brought a higher standard of living than the previous generation had known. This resulted in an explosion of new home building, the creation of suburbs, and ultimately, the exodus of whites from the inner city. Few blacks could afford the new homes that were going up on development sites all across the country. Instead, many urban blacks lived in the same kind of ghetto in which Wilson himself had been born. The front yard of the Maxson home is a rarity for most black families who often lived in huge inner-city apartment buildings.

COMPARE & CONTRAST

  • 1957: Ku Klux Klansmen accuse Alabama grocery-chain truck driver Willie Edwards, 25, of having made remarks to a white woman and force him at pistol point to jump to his death from the Tyler Goodwin Bridge into the Alabama River. It was Edwards’s first day on the truck route.
    1985: Philadelphia police try to dislodge members of MOVE, an organization of armed blacks. They firebomb a house from the air on May 13 and the fire spreads to adjacent houses, killing 11 and leaving 200 homeless.
    Today: A black woman, previously on public assistance, organizes a million woman rally in Philadelphia. This variant on the 1996 million man march on Washington D.C. draws more than one million black women in a show of strength and solidarity.
  • 1957: The Motown Corporation is founded in Detroit, Michigan, by entrepreneur Barry Gordy Jr., 30, who invests $700 to start a recording company whose “Motown Sound” will figure large in popular music for more than two decades.
    1985: The Color Purple, a film based on Alice Walker’s novel, is a top grossing box office success for star Whoopi Goldberg and director Steven Spielberg.
    Today: Rosewood, a film based on actual events that occurred in 1927, examines the massacre that destroyed a small Florida town after a white woman falsely accuses a black man of sexual assault.
  • 1957: Ghana becomes the first African state south of the Sahara to attain independence.
    1985: South Africa declares a state of emergency July 20, giving police and the army almost absolute power in Black townships. The country’s policy of apartheid has kept blacks as second-class citizens for decades.
    Today: For the first time, South Africa is ruled by the racial majority (blacks) led by Nelson Mandela, who languished in white-run prisons during the last 27 years of apartheid rule.
  • 1957: The first U.S. civil rights bill since Civil War reconstruction days, passed by Congress September 9, establishes a Civil Rights Commission and provides federal safeguards for voting rights. Many Southerners oppose the bill.
    1985: The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act signed by President Reagan mandates congressional spending limits in an effort to eliminate the federal deficit.
    Today: Welfare reform results in a loss of services, including food stamps, public assistance, and medical care for many of the nation’s poorest citizens. The reform is intended by politicians to be a mechanism that will force welfare recipients into the job force. But the change is seen by the many organizations that assist the poor as a misdirected effort that will punish the nation’s already disadvantaged children.

Racism

The 1950s still revealed an America with two races, separated by color and economic barriers. Blacks and whites attended different schools, lived in different neighborhoods, and received different benefits from their citizenship. Before the advent of forced busing in the 1960s, most blacks attended schools in poorer neighborhoods. Because schools are funded by a complicated system of bonds supported by taxes, black schools (in neighborhoods that collected lower taxes) received less money and thus had smaller resources with which to pay salaries, maintain buildings, or buy new equipment. The result was that students at predominately

black schools received a sub-standard level of education.

Other areas of inequality included suffrage and justice. Blacks were not encouraged to vote; in fact, many areas discouraged blacks from voting by instituting difficult competency exams as qualifiers. Whites were not required to pass these exams. Accordingly, blacks had little input into the political decisions that shaped their lives. Blacks also suffered unequal treatment under the law. Many could not read the contracts they signed or were too intimidated to protest. In addition, blacks often became the victims of discrimination under criminal statutes. Ignorance of their legal rights meant that blacks often languished in jail. In some cases, blacks were lynched by unruly mobs who were sometimes sanctioned by a law enforcement organization that looked the other way. The civil unrest of the 1960s was a direct result of these injustices.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

When Fences first opened on Broadway in March of 1987, Wilson had already spent four years in preproduction revisions to his play. James Earl Jones, who won a Tony Award for his performance in the Broadway production, had first played Troy Maxson in the Yale Repertory Theatre production two years earlier. His ease and interpretation of an already familiar character were evident to reviewers who hailed Jones’s performance. Allan Wallach, in his Newsday review, said that Jones gave this role “its full measure of earthiness and complexity.” Jones, said Wallach, was at his best when Troy is drinking and laughing with his friends; his “performance is at its heartiest in the bouts of drinking and bantering.” Wallach also singled out Wilson’s ability to capture the “rhythms of his characters” who gather in the yard of the Maxson home, a yard that “becomes a rich portrait of a man who scaled down his dreams to fit inside his run-down yard.” Wallach’s review is an acknowledgment of Wilson’s strength in “depicting a black man forced to come to terms with an unfeeling white world.” However, Wallach also found that the scenes where Troy interacts with his family sometimes fell to conventional family fare.

Reviewer Clive Barnes offered no such distinction in his review that appeared in the New York Post. Barnes called Fences a play that “seems to break away from the confines of art into a dense, complex realization of reality.” Fences is a play that makes the audience forget it is in a theater, thinking instead that they are witnessing a real family drama. Barnes also singled out Jones for praise in a role that left the reviewer “transfixed.” But Wilson was also praised for writing drama “so engrossing, so embracing, so simply powerful” that he transcended an effort to label him a black playwright. Instead, Wilson’s ability to tell a story makes such labels, in Barnes’s opinion, “irrelevant.” Barnes also praised the play for its historic relevance and cited the lessons Troy learned while in prison and his experience playing baseball. Barnes declared that Wilson has created “the strongest, most passionate American dramatic writing since Tennessee Williams.” Barnes’s review contained no reservations. He praised the actors, noting that Jones’s performance was not the only excellent one of the production and offered equal approval for the staging and setting. The sum total of these elements resulted in what Barnes described as “one of the richest experiences I have ever had in the theatre.”

Edwin Wilson’s praise of Fences was just as full of compliments as that of Barnes and Wallach. In his Wall Street Journal review, Wilson stated that with Fences, the author had demonstrated that he can “strike at the heart, not just of the black experience, but of the human condition.” Troy is a character who is multi-dimensional; his complexity reveals a man “with the full measure of his shortcomings as well as his strengths.” The audience witnesses the characters’ depth of ambition, their frustration, and their pain, according to this reviewer. As did other reviewers, Wilson also noted the exceptional quality of the setting and the staging. Fences, said Wilson, is “an especially welcome and important addition to the season.”

CRITICISM

Sheri Metzger

Metzger is a professional writer with a specialty in drama. In this essay she discusses Wilson’s metaphoric use of baseball in portraying the life of his lead character, Troy Maxson.

The most prevalent image in August Wilson’s Fences is baseball. It is the sport that defines Troy Maxson’s life and provides the measure of his success. Indeed, Wilson has constructed the play into nine scenes—or innings—to emphasize the connection. According to Christine Birdwell in Aethlon, the innings correspond to the seasons of Troy’s life. In some innings Troy is the hero who wins for his team, his family. These are the innings defined by Troy’s success: his early success as a great hitter for the Negro Leagues, his protest at work that wins him a promotion to driver, and his noble, responsible efforts to provide for his family. But some innings are losses for Troy (and his team): his misunderstandings and painful confrontations with his two sons, his institutionalizing of his brother Gabriel, his broken relationships with Rose and Bono, and the death of Alberta. In the ninth inning, when Troy is dead, his family gathers in the yard to remember Troy’s wins and losses.

Birdwell noted that Wilson does not provide much information about the black baseball leagues in his play. The role baseball plays in framing Troy’s strengths and weaknesses is more important than the history of the game itself. Instead the emphasis is on characterization. The audience learns that Troy was a good hitter and that his home run average far exceeded those of many white players. Nevertheless, the Negro League was not a source of viable income for its players; Troy could not have bought his home without the additional money from Gabriel’s disability checks. In one of his complaints about the color line in baseball, Troy observes that he “saw Josh Gibson’s daughter yesterday. She was walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet.” He then compares Gibson’s child to the child of a white major league player, and declares “I bet you Selkirk’s daughter ain’t walking around with raggedy shoes on her feet.” The reference is clear: Negro League players cannot make enough money to support their families. The injustice rankles Troy whose bitterness at the slight baseball has shown him is evident throughout the play.

Besides his thirty-year friendship with Bono, the fifteen years that he spent in prison provided Troy with another benefit. It demonstrated to him that he had a talent, one that set him apart from other men, one that proved his worth. But, as Birdwell noted, baseball also proved a disappointment. For Troy, “the triumphs of the past have become bitter betrayals, and baseball now means lost dreams. Baseball had defined Troy, had given him meaning and status; now it has left him with nothing tangible.”

Troy is so angry over his own lost opportunities that, by 1957, he cannot take pleasure in the fact that black men are finally able to play major league ball. Integration means nothing to him because it came too late to benefit his life. He complains that “if you could play ball then they ought to have let you play.” Ability and not color should determine who plays baseball, but Troy recognizes that justice has been missing for black men. When he tries to explain his distrust of the white sport establishment to Cory, Troy observes that “the colored guy got to be twice as good [as the white player] before he get on the team.” He also notes that although the leagues are now integrated, the black players sit on the bench and are not used. Cory has no personal

WHAT DO I READ NEXT?

  • Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969) offers an autobiographical look at the American black experience. This book provides a feminine perspective of the effects of racism.
  • The Wedding Band (1966), a play by Alice Childress, examines racism and intolerance through the eyes of a couple who are trying to find acceptance for their interracial love affair. Because the subject was so controversial, the play was not produced until several years after it was written.
  • A Raisin in the Sun (1959) by Lorraine Hansberry also explores segregation, racism, and the lack of economic opportunities that beset African Americans. The integration of white neighborhoods by minority families is still an important issue nearly forty years after this play was first produced.
  • The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker is a fictional look at the effects of segregation and racism both within black culture and between blacks and whites. The novel (and Steven Spielberg’s later movie adaptation) celebrate the strength of black women.
  • Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) examines what it means to grow up black and female in America. Morrison explores how white standards of beauty affect young black girls, and she looks at the nature of the relationship between black and white women.
  • The Piano Lesson, another play by August Wilson, was first performed in 1987. This play probes the conflicts between traditional values and the need to change to better survive the future.

experience that corresponds to his father’s. He has been playing football in high school and recruiters want him to play in college; he fails to see any lack of opportunity. Each man feels the other is blind to the truth, but both are centered in their own experience.

In a real sense, Troy has become blind to the changes of the past ten years, and it is this ignorance that provokes him to deny Cory’s chance at succeeding. Too often, fathers use sons to achieve the success they feel they have been denied. But Troy has no desire to live vicariously through his son. Finally, in the eighth inning/scene, their opposing positions result in a confrontation that turns violent. After having been told by his father that he is earning strikes, Cory grabs a baseball bat and advances with the intent of swinging at his father. This is the strike-out about which Troy has been warning his son. Cory swings twice and misses, but Troy is stronger and seizes the bat, denying his son the third swing that may have resulted in a strike-out—or a hit.

Birdwell observed that in this scene, “Wilson presents a reverse image of the traditional, treasured father-and-son backyard game depicted in films and on television. Instead father and son vie for the bat transformed into a weapon, and savage combat erupts.” Baseball should provide fathers and sons with a bonding experience, with an opportunity for playful competition. But Cory cannot compete with Troy. Troy’s need for control, a pattern he learned from his own brutal father, is too ingrained for him to soften his ways. Although he means the best for Cory, Troy’s misdirected efforts result in the loss of his son. He will die without having ever seen Cory again.

The relationship that Troy forges with his wife, Rose, also proves to be limited by his experience in baseball. After eighteen years of marriage, Troy feels he needs to escape the confining walls of responsibility through an affair with another woman. The other woman, Alberta, is Troy’s attempt to capture what has been lost, his youth. If Troy is now too old to play major league baseball, he is not too old to be attractive to other women. Birdwell insisted that Alberta “returns Troy to baseball’s yesteryears, in which, according to Bono, ‘a lot of them old gals was after [him],’ when he ‘had the pick of the litter.’”

While Troy might see another woman as a way to escape into the past, there is less opportunity for Rose to escape the pressures and responsibilities of life. The role women play in Fences is limited by the time period in which the play is set. In the 1950s, women were restrained by traditional roles and the division of private and public spheres. Men functioned in the public sphere; they left the home to go to jobs. In contrast, women primarily functioned in the private sphere of home and domestic chores. When Rose is confronted with Troy’s infidelity, she may choose to remain in the marriage, but that choice does not signify that she is accepting or helpless. During her marriage, Rose has allowed Troy to fill her life. She tells Troy, “I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams. . . and I buried them inside you.”

But Troy’s betrayal forces Rose to reassess her position, according to Harry Elam in May All Your Fences Have Gates. This reassessment, noted Elam, means new avenues of freedom that “affirm rather than assault traditional gender limitations.” Rose substitutes her church for her husband. When, at the end of the seventh inning/scene, Rose tells Troy that “this child got a mother. But you a womanless man,” she is asserting her independence from her husband. Elam quoted Patricia Collins’s argument that black women learn independence at church, but they also learn to subordinate their interests to the greater good of the African American community.

Rose has chosen to take the subservient role in marriage. She admits her complicity, but the audience is reminded that her options were few. Yet she is not an oppressed woman, and when Rose takes the infant Raynell and speaks the lines that end this scene, Elam noted that “the audience, particularly black female spectators, erupted with cheers and applause.” Clearly, Rose is perceived by black women as a strong female character and not an oppressed figure. As Sandra Shannon noted in an essay in May All Your Fences Have Gates, Rose “evolves from a long-suffering heroine to a fiercely independent woman.” This evolution is what audiences are cheering.

With Fences, Wilson created a play that explores the barriers that confine blacks. The title serves as a metaphor for all the fences that imprison

“BASEBALL DEFINES TROY MAXSON’S LIFE AND PROVIDES THE MEASURE OF HIS SUCCESS.”

the Maxsons. The fence that surrounds the Maxson home is not the white picket fence of the 1950s American ideal. Their fence is not decor and it is not an enhancement—its purpose is strictly utilitarian. At the beginning of the play, Troy thinks he is building a fence to please Rose. She wants a fence that will keep all those she loves safe inside its walls. Later, after Alberta’s death, Troy completes the fence to keep danger, death, outside its walls.

For most of the play’s action, though, Troy is in no hurry to complete Rose’s fence, after all, he has spent time in prison with fences limiting his movements. And when he played baseball, he was never content to just hit a home run into the stands; he felt that he had to transcend the boundaries of the stadium and hit a ball over the fence. For Troy, fences have been a restriction, and he’s in no hurry to build another. Yet there are many fences that lie in Troy’s way that he cannot control or hit a ball over. The mental hospital where Troy confines Gabriel provides one such fence, while another kind of fence—one between the living and the dead—is erected when Alberta dies. It is this latter enclosure that finally creates a sense of urgency in Troy.

The fence Troy completes, however, will fail to keep Cory inside. Although Troy has attempted to confine Cory within his authority, his son does escape. Yet when he returns, the audience learns that Cory is now bound within the confines of a far more strict institution, the military. Cory has escaped from his father’s authority only to end up bound in the rule of the Marine Corps. With the Vietnam War looming only a few years away, the boundary created by the military is an especially dangerous one for black males.

The fences that would keep Cory from reaching his goals is not unlike the fences that limit Rose. In the last scenes of the play when Rose finally asserts herself, she is really only exchanging Troy’s fence for the one offered by the church. Religion provides its own fences and limitations, and for Rose, who chooses not to break free of the institution of marriage, the church offers a haven within its institutionalized walls. Even Gabriel who is allowed a temporary escape from the mental hospital, ends the play with an effort to create an opening in the fence so that Troy might enter heaven. But for blacks, the most difficult fence to scale, the one that restricts their achievements, the one that steals opportunities, is the fence that whites erect to keep blacks in a place away from mainstream success. This is the fence that Wilson wants his audience to see. This is the fence against which blacks are forced to struggle.

In an interview that appeared in In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights, Wilson said that by the end of Fences, every character had been institutionalized, except Raynell; she is the hope of the future. Raynell stands within the confines of the fence that surrounds the yard, but the audience leaves with the perception that she will go beyond that barrier to achieve a better future than her father.

Source: Sheri Metzger for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.

Richard Hornby

In this review, Hornby gives a positive appraisal of Wilson’s work, deeming both the text and the production to be exemplary.

August Wilson’s Fences deals with a black family living in “a North American industrial city” in the late 1950s. The father, Troy Maxson, is a former star baseball player of the Negro leagues who was too old to get into the majors when they at last opened up to blacks after World War II. He resents the false promise that sports held for him, and blocks his own son’s promising career as a football player.

Troy’s life has been filled with disappointment, oppression, and just plain bad luck: Raised in the South in billet poverty, he today cannot even read. As a youth, he served time in the penitentiary as result of a stabbing in a robbery he committed simply to get food. His brother received a head injury in the war that reduced him to a mental child, with only Troy to care for him. Troy holds down a job as a garbage collector, prevented by the color of his skin from getting promoted to driver. All these problems are “fences” that have held him in all his life.

Nevertheless, this is not a bitter play, but a warm and often comic view of black life in America. Troy has a wonderful, loving wife, and a strong friendship with his longtime co-worker, Jim Bono. Troy’s relationships with his son, with another son by a previous marriage, and with his retarded brother Gabriel, are not always harmonious, but are always based on deep and genuine feeling.

All the action of the play, in nine scenes spread over eight years, takes place in the Maxsons’ back yard. Many of the scenes appear on the surface to be mere slices of life, with nothing much happening, yet, like Chekhov, Wilson always keeps the plot subtly moving forward. Troy jokes and tells stories, rails against the ballplayers of the day—Jackie Robinson is just lucky, there were black teams he could not even have made in the old days!—banters with his wife, argues with his sons and brother, and procrastinates over repairing the back fence, the visible manifestation of the symbol that unifies the play. As with Chekhov, major events take place offstage: we hear how Troy eventually gets a promotion by going to his union, and how he drifts into an affair with a young woman (never seen) that nearly wrecks his marriage, and leaves him and his wife with another child to raise when the woman dies in childbirth.

The rift between Troy and his son widens; blocked from going to college on a football scholarship, and disgusted with his father’s infidelity, the boy confronts Troy in the only overtly physical scene in the play. In this classic father-son agon, each has an opportunity to kill the other, but draws back. Tragedy averted, the son goes off to join the Marines, returning only for his father’s funeral years later, confronting the many fences that have figured in their lives—“fences to keep people out, and fences to keep people in.”

James Earl Jones was superb in the lead role. He still has the physical strength and agility he had twenty years ago in The Great White Hope, and although, like the character he played in Fences, he shows his age, he also convinced you of his underlying athletic ability, which is so important to the role. When Troy insisted that he “can hit forty-three home runs right now!”, Jones made you believe it. He also skillfully used his well-known, resonant voice with wide variations and contrasts, giving a rich, musical quality to the many stories—the play is full of long, set speeches—which were also enhanced by his ability for both physical and vocal mimicry, as he imitated the many real and imaginary characters he described. Jones is a wonderfully precise actor; the performance was full of telling detail, such as the way he would swig at a bottle of gin he was sharing with his friends, managing a big, fast swallow while fastidiously keeping the bottle from touching his lips. The role won him a Tony Award for the best performance of the year on Broadway, and one should add that he was lucky, these days, to have a role worthy of his talents to perform there.

Jones was supported by an excellent cast, especially Mary Alice, who brought ease, charm, and poignancy to the role of his wife, and Frankie R. Faison, who turned the tricky role of the retarded brother—which could easily have degenerated into something sentimental or, on the other hand, disgustingly clinical—into a performance that was deft and lyrical. Lloyd Richards directed with his usual skill and clarity, while James D. Sandefur designed the naturalistic yet evocative setting. The only flaw here was that, perhaps because it was in the inappropriate 46th Street Theatre, sightlines required the setting to be placed far downstage, which limited much of the blocking to one dimension.

Fences won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, which it well deserved. Some of its excellence, however, derives from its being part of a whole school of contemporary black playwriting, by authors such as Lonne Elder III, Charles H. Fuller, Jr., and Leslie Lee. Many of their plays are better than anything written by fashionable white playwrights like Sam Shepard, David Mamet, or David Rabe, yet they have received less attention and are less likely to appear in anthologies or college courses in contemporary American drama. Influenced by Ibsen and Chekhov, they realistically depict life in black America with understatement, humor, and sadness. They also show the influence of jazz, especially the blues, whose lyrics combine comedy and pathos in giving voice to the problems of ordinary black people. The intense personal relationships that are the glory of black life are made vivid for all of us.

Source: Richard Hornby, review of Fences in the Hudson Review, Volume XL, no. 3, Autumn, 1987, pp. 470-72.

Gerald Weales

Weales reviews Fences, commenting on the advances that Wilson has made since his previous play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Weales offers a positive review of the play.

At the end of August Wilson’s Fences, the Maxsons gather for the funeral of Troy, who has dominated the family and the play. His “mixed-up” brother Gabe, who had “half his head blown away” in World War II and who believes that he has been to

FENCES IS NOT A BITTER PLAY, BUT A WARM AND OFTEN COMIC VIEW OF BLACK LIFE IN AMERICA.”

heaven, unlimbers the trumpet he always carries “to tell St. Peter to open the gates.” There is no mouthpiece, no trumpet blast. After three increasingly desperate tries, Gabe howls in anguish and frustration. Light pours across the scene. “That’s the way that go!” he says, smiling his satisfaction.

That’s not really the way that go, meaning the play as a whole, but the effectiveness of the final scene is a reminder that Wilson stretches the limits of the realistic form his play takes (as he mixed songs and dramatic scenes in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) and that the verisimilitude of his language cannot disguise the lyric qualities in his work. For the most part, Fences is a family play in an old American tradition—Awake and Sing!, Death of a Salesman, A Raisin in the Sun—in which the conflicts within the family are given definition by the social forces outside. Set in “a Northern American industrial city” (i.e., Wilson’s Pittsburgh) in 1957, it uses the metaphor of the fence which Troy builds around his backyard as title to a play about the fences between husband and wife, father and son, black and white.

Troy Maxson is a black man in his early fifties, at once an authority figure and a garrulous, playful nice guy. James Earl Jones, in one of his best roles, joins the playwright in making Troy both attractive and threatening. Although he has the strength to buck the system, to get himself promoted from garbageman to driver, he sees the world in terms of his own past. He has become a variation on the tyrant father he ran away to escape. He has come to believe that a black man’s only choice is between jail, where he spent some youthful years, and a steady job; he cannot see that there might be other possibilities in the 1950s, roads that were not open thirty years earlier.

A central prop in Fences is the baseball that hangs on a rope from the tree in the yard. Troy’s device for batting practice, it is a constant reminder for him and for us of his greatest triumph and his greatest disappointment. Having learned to play

“FOR THE MOST PART, FENCES IS A FAMILY PLAY IN AN OLD AMERICAN TRADITION, IN WHICH THE CONFLICTS WITHIN THE FAMILY ARE GIVEN DEFINITION BY THE SOCIAL FORCES OUTSIDE.”

baseball in prison, he went on to become a star in the Negro League but, despite his talent, the color line kept him out of the majors. Whether out of jealousy or to protect the young man, Troy refuses to sign the papers that would let his son go to college on a football scholarship, a destructive act that leads to a final confrontation between the two and a reenactment of the father-son conflict that sent Troy off on his own. He uses his sense of ownership and control (my house, my yard) not only to stifle his son’s ambitions but to misuse his brother, whose disability payments bought the house, and his wife, whom he loves but to whom he brings the child of another woman. Sitting in the audience, one could sense who was on what side of which fence by the applause that accompanied the son’s defiance and the wife’s revolt, her acceptance of the child and rejection of Troy as husband. Troy fills the last scene even in his absence, and when his son, now a sergeant in the Marines, joins his half-sister in singing Troy’s song about Blue that “good old dog,” acceptance of and forgiveness for what Troy and his world had made of him prepare the way for Gabe’s bringing the light. What remains is Troy’s strength, his sense of duty, and his odd vulnerability. “That’s the way that go!”

Source: Gerald Weales, review of Fences in the Commonweal, Volume CXIV, no. 10, May 22, 1987, pp. 320-21.

SOURCES

Barnes, Clive. “Fiery ‘Fences’” in the New York Post, March 27, 1987.

Birdwell, Christine. “Death as a Fastball on the Outside Corner: Fences’s Troy Maxson and the American Dream” in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature, Vol. 8, no. 1, Fall, 1990, pp. 87-96.

Ching, Mei-Ling. “Wrestling against History” in Theater, Vol. 19, no. 3, Summer-Fall, 1988, pp. 70-71.

DeVries, Hilary. “A Song in Search of Itself in American Theatre, Vol. 3, no. 10, January, 1987, pp. 22-25.

Elam, Harry J., Jr. “Of Angels and Transcendence: An Analysis of Fences by August Wilson and Roosters by Milcha Sanchez-Scott” in Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama, edited by Marc Manfort, Peter Lang (New York), 1995, pp. 287-300.

Henderson, Heather. “Building Fences: An Interview with Mary Alice and James Earl Jones” in Theater, Vol. 16, no. 3, Summer-Fall, 1985, pp. 67-70.

Pereira, Kim. “August Wilson” in Reference Guide to American Literature, edited by Jim Kamp, third edition, St. James Press, 1994, pp. 919-21.

Shafer, Yvonne. “Breaking Barriers: August Wilson” in Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama, edited by Marc Manfort, Peter Lang, 1995. pp. 267-85.

Wallach, Allan. “Fenced in by a Lifetime of Resentments” in Newsday, March 27, 1987.

Wilson, Edwin. “Wilson’s ‘Fences’ on Broadway” in the Wall Street Journal, March 31, 1987.

FURTHER READING

Chalk, Ocania. Pioneers in Black Sport, Dodd, Mead (New York), 1975.

Chalk provides a detailed discussion of the complicated issue of integration in professional sports.

Elam, Harry J. “August Wilson’s Women” in May All Your Fences Have Gates, University of Iowa Press, 1994.

Elam is a Professor of Drama at Stanford University. This essay is an examination of the role of women in Wilson’s dramas.

Elkins, Marilyn. August Wilson: A Casebook, Garland (New York), 1994.

This narrow volume is a collection of essays that discuss Wilson’s work within the context of historical and cultural influences.

Holway, John. Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues, Dodd, Mead, 1975.

This is a scholarly investigation of the Negro Leagues based on player interviews and an examination of sports reportage.

In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights, Theatre Communications Group, 1988.

This essay is the transcript of a March 1987 interview with Wilson in which he discusses several of his plays.

Nadel, Alan. Essays on the Drama of August Wilson, University of Iowa Press (Iowa City), 1994

This is a collection of essays on Wilson’s dramatic work. There is also a comprehensive bibliography included.

Paige, Leroy “Satchel.” Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, Doubleday, 1962.

Perhaps the best-known player from the Negro baseball leagues, Satchel Paige is considered to be one of the finest players to engage the game of baseball. This book is an autobiographical look at his career in the Negro Leagues.

Rogosin, Donn. Invisible Men: Life in Baseball’s Negro Leagues, Atheneum (New York), 1983.

This book offers an overview of the social issues that led to the end of the great Negro Leagues.

Ruck, Rob. Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh, University of Illinois Press (Urbana), 1987.

This nonfiction text probes the history of sports in Pittsburgh, the city of Wilson’s youth and the model for the urban setting of Fences.

Shannon, Sandra G. “The Ground on Which I Stand” in May All Your Fences Have Gates, University of Iowa Press, 1994.

Shannon is an Associate Professor of English at Howard University. Her essay examines the role of African American women in Wilson’s dramas.

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