Fences opened in Broadway on March 26, 1987, and ran for 525 performances, a remarkable run for a drama.
The play starred James Earl Jones and was directed by Lloyd Richards, Dean of the Yale School of Drama (1979-1991) and the director of the original Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun in 1959.
In his New York Times review, Frank Rich wrote, “ Fences leaves no doubt that Mr. Wilson is a major writer, combining a poet's ear for vernacular with a robust sense of humor (political and sexual), a sure instinct for crackling dramatic incident and a passionate commitment to a great subject.”
In the New York Post , Clive Barnes stated, “In many respects, Fences falls into the classic pattern of the American drama – a family play, with a tragically doomed American father locked in conflict with his son. Greek tragedy with a Yankee accent.”
Fences won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Drama Desk Award for Best New Play, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Best Play, and the Tony Award for Best Play.
August Wilson was born in 1945 in Pittsburgh, PA, in an impoverished section known as the Hill District. He was raised in a two-room apartment without hot water or a telephone. His German father abandoned him and his African-American mother and saw Wilson rarely.
Wilson’s mother remarried and moved to a white neighborhood where mother and son experienced much racism.
Wilson stopped going to school at the age of fifteen when a teacher falsely accused him of plagiarizing a paper on Napoleon. A voracious reader, Wilson spent his days in the local library.
As a young man he developed his love for the blues and different forms of African-American expression. He dedicated himself to becoming a writer by his late teens. In the 1970s, Wilson took the last name of his mother.
Wilson continued …
Frustrated by his lack of direction, his mother threw him out of the house. Wilson enlisted in the army, but spent only one year in active service before returning to Pittsburgh to live in a boarding house.
He began writing poetry, but did not have much of an impact as a poet. But he said, “After writing poetry for twenty-one years, I approach the play the same way. The mental process is poetic: you use metaphor and condense.”
In 1969, Wilson, with playwright and teacher Rob Penny, founded Black Horizons on the Hill, a black activist theater company, which gave Wilson an opportunity to present his plays mostly in public schools and community centers.
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In 1978 Wilson moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota, when he was invited to write plays for a black theater founded by Claude Purdy. His first significant play, Jitney , revealed promise, and would be reworked later for larger productions.
In 1982, Wilson met Lloyd Richards, who offered to produce Wilson’s work at Yale. At Yale, Wilson emerged as a major dramatist.
Wilson’s first play at Yale was Ma Rainey's Black Bottom , which opened to a successful Broadway run with Lloyd as director on October 11, 1984.
With the opening of Fences on Broadway in 1987, Wilson’s reputation soared.
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Subsequent Broadway premieres and awards awaited him and his new plays. In 1990, he won his second Pulitzer for The Piano Lesson .
In total, Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes and seven New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, and he has received twenty-three honorary degrees.
Married three times, Wilson died of liver cancer in 2005.
On October 16, 2005, fourteen days after Wilson's death, the Virginia Theatre on Broadway was renamed the August Wilson Theatre, the first Broadway house to be named after an African American.
The Pittsburgh Cycle
Fences is a part of August Wilson’s ten-play cycle that explores the African-American experience in the twentieth century.
“ I’m taking each decade and looking at one of the most important questions that blacks confronted in that decade and writing a play about it. … Put them all together and you have a history.”
Collectively, the plays are known as the Pittsburgh Cycle ― all but one take place in the city's Hill District.
Pittsburgh Cycle continued …
Wilson completed the cycle, but the plays were not written in chronological order.
1900s ― Gem of the Ocean (2003)
1910s ― Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1988)
1920s ― Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1985), set in Chicago
1930s ― The Piano Lesson (1990)
1940s ― Seven Guitars (1995)
1950s ― Fences (1987)
1960s ― Two Trains Running (1991)
1970s ― Jitney (1982)
1980s ― King Hedley II (1999)
1990s ― Radio Golf (2005)
The Pittsburgh Cycle is recognized as one of the great achievements in the American theater.
"He was a giant figure in American theater … Heroic is not a word one uses often without embarrassment to describe a writer or playwright, but the diligence and ferocity of effort behind the creation of his body of work is really an epic story.”
― Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America
Wilson as Dramatist
Wilson said that his plays are influenced by the “4 B’s”: the B lues; fellow playwright and poet, Amiri B araka; author, Jorge Luis B orges, and painter, Romare B earden.
“ I see the blues as a book of literature and it influences everything I do. … Blacks' cultural response to the world is contained in blues.”
From Baraka and plays like The Dutchman , Wilson was inspired to write directly and aggressively of the African-American experience.
From the novelist Borges, Wilson was inspired to include elements of the fantastic or magical realism into his plays.
Regarding Bearden, Wilson claimed, "When I saw his work, it was the first time that I had seen black life presented in all its richness, and I said, 'I want to do that—I want my plays to be the equal of his canvases.’”
“ Wilson’s ambitions extend far beyond simple storytelling. … A mythmaker who sees his basically panorama-plays as stages in an allegorical history of black America, Wilson is also a folk ethnologist, collecting prototypical stories, testimonies, rituals of speech and behavior, which he embeds in his larger compositions. Buried deepest of all, under the dramatist Wilson, the mythmaker-cum-social historian Wilson, and the folklorist-ethnologist Wilson, is a tormented and complex ideologue Wilson, carrying on anguished debates with himself about such politically engrossing matters as black male-female relations, the use of black economic power, and the place of the church in the black community.”
― Michael Feingold in The Village Voice , April 7, 1987
“ My concern was the idea of missed possibilities. Music and sports were the traditional inroads for blacks, and in both Ma Rainey and Fences, with both Levee and Troy, even those inroads fail.”
– August Wilson
Fences – Opening Stage Directions
The stage directions that introduce the play are lengthy and specific. Consider Wilson’s description of the Maxson house: strong with a “sturdy porch” … in need of repair and maintenance … “ancient” and “badly in need of paint” … “lacks congruence” … is of “dubious value” … located “off a small alley in a big-city neighborhood.” These details suggest weariness, exclusion, frustration, and disappointment.
Subsequent paragraphs contrast the European immigrant experience with that of the descendants of African slaves. By 1957, the time of the play, those early twentieth-century European immigrants were full participants in the American Dream and had contributed to making the 1950s a decade during which life seemed “rich, full, and flourishing.”
1957 World Series
Stage Directions continued…
On the surface, 1957 seemed so placid that the World Series might
have been the most remarkable event – of course, Wilson’s
mention of the Series also introduces the importance of baseball to
the play. But as Wilson suggests, there was a strong undercurrent
beneath those seemingly placid waters, one that would not remain
submerged in the 1960s. Instead, this undercurrent, which flows
through Troy Maxson, would make the next decade “turbulent,
racing, dangerous, and provocative.”
Wilson uses his elaborate stage directions to set the tone of his
main characters’ lives and the tone of the play. The setting is filled
with the weariness and frustration that follows broken dreams.
Literally and figuratively, Troy is a large, powerful man. As his wife Rose says, when he “walked through the house he was so big he filled it up,” but he didn’t always leave room for others.
Troy’s first name suggests the legendary city of Troy (from Homer’s Iliad ) – and Fences is about the fall of Troy Maxson. His surname, Maxson, is an amalgamation of Mason and Dixon, i.e., the Mason-Dixon line, which separated the slave states from the free states. Troy was raised in the South, served a lengthy prison sentence, and lived subsequent years in the North.
Troy’s life has been filled with hope and disappointment. He was an outstanding baseball player in prison, but his professional career was disappointing because of the color barrier in Major League Baseball. He confronts his boss to become a driver of the garbage truck, but is disappointed with being separated from his friends behind the truck.
Troy and Self-Mythologizing
Much of Troy’s hope derives from his bolstering of himself and his low self-esteem through self-mythologizing.
He draws on the Bible to recreate himself as a man of mythical or Biblical proportions. He tells of wrestling with Death, which recalls Jacob’s wrestling with an angel. He fights off Death for three days and three nights; as a result, he has learned to “be ever vigilant.”
Troy wants to give himself grandeur, power, and a sense of immortality.
He wants those around him to admire him the way fans once admired him.
Troy and Responsibility
Troy’s values are rooted in his sense of responsibility. He carries out his responsibilities diligently and he expects others to fulfill their responsibilities to him. As he tells Cory, “Mr. Rand don’t give me my money come payday cause he likes me. He gives me cause he owe me.”
This emphasis on responsibility may work well for Troy in the workplace, but it fails him at home. Responsibility displaces love as the most important family value for Troy. Troy explains to Cory why he provides for him: “… cause you my son. You my flesh and blood. Not ‘cause I like you! Cause it’s my duty to take care of you. I owe a responsibility to you! ... I ain’t got to like you.”
Troy’s sense of responsibility is shortsighted as it costs him an opportunity to get close to his son.
Troy’s emphasis on responsibility, which he defines in financial terms, allows for an extramarital affair.
Responsibility continued …
Although he loves his wife, he seems to feel little guilt over the affair. He never apologizes to Rose. He might feel justified because he turns over his paycheck to her and because Alberta offers him more laughter, joy, and veneration: “I can sit up in her house and laugh … she firmed up my backbone,” but “I take my pay and give it to you. I don’t have no money but what you give me back. I just want to have a little time to myself … a little time to enjoy life.”
Troy may be fiscally responsible, but as a husband and father he is otherwise selfish, self-indulgent, hypocritical, and emotionally irresponsible.
Consider Troy’s song, “Old Blue.” For Troy, “Old Blue” is about loyalty and the failure of human love. Only Troy’s dog Blue was there to awaken him after his father’s brutal beating. All of Troy’s human relationships – beginning with his mother’s abandonment of him – have failed Troy. At the end, Cory and Raynell sing “Old Blue” to signal both their respect for and their forgiveness of their father.
Troy and Baseball
Troy uses baseball as a metaphor throughout the play. Baseball not only gives his life direction, but it also gives him a vocabulary for self-expression. Although Troy may be illiterate, his use of baseball imagery is at times poetic and always expressive.
He began life, he says, with two strikes against him, defines death as “nothing but a fastball on the outside corner,” and explains his affair as trying to steal second base after the frustration of standing on first base for so long. At that point, Rose is understandably frustrated by his baseball metaphors: “We’re not talking about baseball! We’re talking about you going off to lay in bed with another woman.” Troy responds, “Rose, you’re not listening to me. I’m trying the best I can to explain it to you.” But Rose is insensitive to her husband’s only means of articulation.
Troy says he was born with “two strikes” against him.” What are those two strikes? Poverty? Being African American in a racist culture? Being abandoned by his mother and being raised by an abusive father?
Rose is committed to family and church. She tries to be an intermediary between father and son, explaining Cory to Troy in an effort to soften the father. She tries also to get Troy to see life more realistically. When he mythologizes his past, she corrects him or tells him to “hush that talk.”
Rose is understandably disappointed and hurt by Troy’s affair, but her bitter response is destructive of not just Troy and their marriage, but herself as well: “From right now … this child got a mother. But you a womanless man.” Rose does not practice the Christian precept of forgiveness, and, as a result, she lives a lonely life.
However, she passes on her understanding of her mistake and convinces Cory to be forgiving of Troy. See her lengthy speech near the very end of the play.
Rose takes in Raynell not just out of sympathy and selflessness, but also because Raynell is the daughter that she always wanted but never had: “… but I took on to Raynell like she was all them babies I had wanted and never had.”
Rose continued …
Rose expresses the failure of her marriage in gardening terms of stunted plants and ungerminated seeds:
“ Troy, I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams… and I buried them inside you. I planted a seed and watched and prayed over it. I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn’t take me no eighteen years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn’t never gonna bloom.”
However, Rose does not rely on the gardening imagery as much as Troy relies on baseball imagery. Rose’s language is often unmetaphoric and direct.
By the end of the play, Cory seems ready to embrace the higher values of his father and mother. He has demonstrated responsibility in the Marines; after six years he has risen in rank to corporal, and, after his discussion with Rose, he has learned to forgive his father.
The way for Cory to escape his father’s shadow, as Rose told him, is through forgiveness, not stubbornness, which staying away from the funeral would have indicated.
Cory can move forward without the ghost of his father to haunt him.
There are several references to the Bible, Jesus, and Rose’s church, all of which point out the strong role of Christianity in the African-American community.
Troy is critical of Rose’s church and ministers. Rose is active in her church and when she bakes for the cake sale, Troy comments, “All them preachers looking for somebody to fatten their pockets.” Troy is obsessed with economics, so much so that he cuts himself off from the possibility of spiritual fulfillment as offered by the church.
What other religious images and references appear in the play? What are their implications?
The most important religious symbol is Gabriel, especially his actions that close the play.
The ending of Fences suggests that Wilson might not be pleased with those Christian churches who rely too completely on the white Christian tradition.
Gabriel, who thinks himself the Archangel Gabriel, blows on his trumpet, but he is unable to open the gates of heaven for Troy. His failure leads him to “a frightful realization,” and he begins “a dance of atavistic signature and ritual” that opens heaven’s gate.
Wilson might be suggesting that black churches, for spiritual wholeness, must consider their African roots in their rituals and spiritual experiences.