In August Wilson’s drama, Fences, the story follows the development of various African American characters in the Maxson family set in the midst of segregation. The drama explores character development through the concepts of love, alienation, conformity, relationship, and the American Dream. The setting is in the backdrop of the 1950’s. This is during the height of when segregation was used as a tool to permit a multi-tiered society. This lends to a mood of oppression and helplessness in Fences. The dreams of the African American community seemed distant at a time when access was determined by skin color. Fences is a story of a father who feels pressure from the limitation’s society has placed around him. This directly and indirectly impacts the lives of his family. The physical barrier of a fence is used symbolically in the drama Fences to show examples of conflict in the characters. Throughout Fences, the writer shows how Troy’s attitudes stemming from segregation lend to the stifling of the American Dream. Despite the circumstance, the American Dream can be realized when we become free of the boundaries, we place around ourselves.
Fences explores the uncomfortable dynamics associated with a previous generation’s American Dream. This is controversial because many see segregation and racism as the anti-American Dream. Blacks were unable to do the most basic of things throughout American society. They were not allowed to ride the same bus, drink from the same fountains, go to the same school, and definitely not play on the same sports team. They were unable to adequately be compensated for their work and ideas. They could not excel further than society would allow. They were not able to have and experience the same dreams as their white counterparts. This drama is set during the 1950’s during the height of racism when there was a major focus on inequalities due to the rescinding tides of World War II. The focus shifted away from overseas conflicts back to a domestic landscape.
Troy Maxson is the protagonist in Fences. Troy is a former baseball star turned trash-collector. He never got to live out his dream of becoming a professional baseball player due to racism and segregation. Troy still holds on to this bitterness closely. Throughout Fences, Troy shows this bitterness when he rejects his family, holds negative perceptions, and puts limits on the aspirations of those closest to him. This attitude is shown when Troy says, “you were born with two strikes on you before you come to the plate” (Wilson 56). As a character, Troy is emblematic of the injustices served to the African American community during this time period. He never got to live out his dream as a ball player. He never experienced true freedom due to the nature of segregation. He now passes this on to his son by diminishing his dreams in favor of a sordid reality.
The Maxson family members combat racism in different ways. Troy feels the impact of racism from when he was denied his dream of playing baseball. He constantly references and alludes to this important event in his life. Troy uses that experience to interject into his son’s life. He shows reluctance in embracing the changing of times. Troy believes Cory will not be able to live out his dream of playing football. He feels this way because of his own experiences with racism. Troy expresses this directly when he states, “That’s why I don’t want you to get all tied up in them sports.” (Wilson 12). Troy wants to counter this inevitability by expressing his desire to have Cory get a good job at A&P. Troy views keeping a good job as a way of combating racism. Fences reflects experiences of racism in multifaceted ways. The drama uses subtlety to show the minor impacts racism has in the lives of some characters. It shows the impact racism plays on Troy. The drama contrasts these varying degrees of victimhood to show that racism can be explicit and implicit. This is referenced when detailing the direct nature racism played in Troy’s life. It also shows how racism can have subtle impacts that often go unnoticed.
According to August Wilson, Troy was a standout baseball player. Troy had been an amazing player for the Negro Leagues. This was before the time of Jackie Robinson being allowed to play on professional white teams. Wilson described Troy as being bitter towards the success of Robinson. It seemed as if Troy was jealous of Robinson’s ability to succeed in a white man’s sport. The resentment is understandable but appears ill-guided. Even a successful African American baseball player like Jackie Robinson couldn’t escape the effects of racism. This is described in analysis when the author says, “Yet, for all the attention given to Robinson’s arrival, his history-making debut was a lonely pursuit” (Henninger). Jackie Robinson broke through many barriers but was still a lonely figure. He was the sole carrier of this new burden placed upon him. Everyone was watching and waiting for the mistake. This created a hypersensitive atmosphere that left Robinson feeling alone despite his historical success. The restraints that once defined Troy seemed to disappear with bygone eras. Troy was in a similar situation to Jackie Robinson but on a smaller scale. He was at the top of the game, but he couldn’t truly reach the heights of his potential due to societal restraints. This helps to understand what Troy may have been experiencing and how this may have impacted the numerous decisions he made throughout Fences.
Alienation is a big part of character development in Fences. Troy was once alienated as an African American baseball player. Later in the drama, Troy alienates his family. He is creating artificial barriers in isolating himself from those closest to him. He is uncommitted to his faithful spouse Rose. Rose reflects on this when she says, “I been right here with you, Troy. I got a life too… Don’t you think I ever wanted other things? Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes?…” (Wilson 57). She is reflecting on the revelation that Troy has been unfaithful with another woman. He has created a barrier between he and his wife by revealing an affair. He alienates Cory by suppressing his dreams. His son has a dream of being a professional football player, but Troy is adamantly against the idea. Troy expresses this when he states, “I don’t want him to be like me! I want him to move as far away from my life as he can get…I decided seventeen years ago that boy wasn’t getting involved in no sports. Not after what they did to me in the sports.” (Wilson 48). Troy wants Cory to hold a good job at A&P. Troy becomes upset when his son tells him he left his job to focus on football. He views Cory’s dream of playing football as unrealistic due to experience. Troy believes he needs to prepare his son for the harshness of life. He accomplishes this by being tough on his son and trying to focus him. He expresses this when he says, “Liked you? Who the hell say I got to like you? What law is there say I got to like you?” (Wilson 48). Troy is knowingly or unknowingly placing barriers around his son’s dreams.
The setting of the play is developed in the front yard of Troy’s home. This is where Troy had been erecting a fence around the house. Wilson describes the yard as having an unfinished fence around a portion of it. This shows his lack of commitment he has to finishing the symbolic barrier. This is symbolic of the commitment he shows to his family as he isolates himself further from them. The play references the concept of fences throughout its entirety. Fences has a deeper meaning beyond the title. A fence can be a physical barrier. It can be an emotional barrier. It can also be a psychological barrier. This is symbolic of how Troy affects those closest to him. It is the boundaries he has placed in his son’s life. It is the barrier he places between he and his wife. In doing so, Troy becomes a negative figure to the other characters. The characters begin to show resentment towards Troy. Cory expresses conflict in attending his father’s funeral when he states, “I’m just saying I have to find a way to get rid of that shadow, Mama.” (Wilson 64-65). In the end, Cory feels some liberation as he decides he wants to be a marine. Ultimately, he is able to escape the barriers placed in his life and experience a new-found freedom.
- August Wilson; Fences. Theater 1 November 1985; 16 (3): 36–67. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01610775-16-3-36
- Henninger, Thom. “The Quiet Dignity of Jackie Robinson.” Baseball Digest, vol. 76, no. 3, May 2017, pp. 52–57. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,shib&db=fth&AN=122598006&site=eds-live&scope=site.