One of the great American playwriters, August Wilson born in 1945 during iconic socio-economic times in Pittsburgh. He coined his plays after his life growing up in Pittsburgh as one of seven children. During the period he lived in, his plays displays the life of the average African American man and woman. He planned the “Pittsburgh Cycle” a group of ten plays, each based on a decade but not written in chronological order. Fences, the play about Troy Maxson, an obligated husband, father and provider reveals the struggles of the economy and societal issues for the African American man. Wilson utilizes African American culture in this play and demonstrates the world through the eyes of a black man in America.Order now
Wilson titled his play Fences because the physical fence around the yard of Troy and Rose’s brick house is characteristic of the divides in life that define life for Troy and keep him and his friends out of better opportunities while protectively keeping loved ones in a circle of the known and the watched over. This significance relates to the setting of the play because all the action and dialogue take place behind the fence that almost encircles Troy’s home. According to Roberts and Zweig, “The fence he builds around his house during the play is symbolically a fence of his own suspicion, anger and cynicism, preventing him from glorying in the world where he might have conquered” (Roberts and Zweig 1429). The struggle of the black family during the Civil Rights movement incorporated many facets that proved to be unjust. Living day to day was what had to be done to survive the limitations given by society.
Wilson uses the title Fences to reveals how people have their own interpretation of what a fence may be needed for or what it may do. There are the obvious literal understandings of a fence, as being a boundary; whether to physically keep people in or out. For Rose, the fence is all about protection and keeping her family safe, as she says, “Jesus, be a fence around me every day, Jesus, I want you to protect me as I travel on my way…” (Wilson 1439). Instead for Troy, it has several meanings, depending on his circumstances at any given time. For Troy, the fence serves more as a barrier than a protective environment and his efforts and reputation for being a big hitter are themselves significant as he is known for sending the ball over the fence but, he is never able to take the actual step of overcoming the imaginary boundary that he has created by distancing himself from friends and family. In an interview, Wilson states he tries to put in all his plays African American culture. He further states that culture to him involves the dynamics of the black man and his discretions. (Rose, August Wilson – Charlie Rose). Fences hide many things and they allow people to hide their own emotions, from themselves and others, such as Troy does. Fences, for Troy, mean constantly having to make compromises.
Wilson further incorporates the American Dream as an underlying theme in the play. Troy being a former negro league baseball player, gives insight into plight of the black man in society. For Troy, baseball a great American pastime and just like the American Dream seemed just at the edge of his fingertips. Troy’s inability to enter professional baseball, despite his talent, is not unlike the inability of black men to enter the middle-class jobs they desired in their migration to northern cities. During an interview with Charlie Rose, Wilson narrates those men’s disappointment when they confronted the same racism that limited their lives in the South. (Rose, August Wilson – Charlie Rose). In Troy’s job, he wants to be the garbage truck driver and not just the one that lifts the garbage. In this time, racist limitations discouraged the black man to achieve some of the simplest tasks such as a promotion. He wants to be the first African American driver, and he gets his wish. However, rather than making him happy, his new job makes him miserable. He says, “Ain’t got nobody to talk to… Feel like you working by yourself” (Wilson). Often, Wilson validates the loneliness of the black man within society trying to survive. (Blimpton and Lyons)
To further enhance the trials of the black man, Wilson determines the rift between father and son. Troy and Cory have constant conflict that each understand differently. The idea expressed in the struggle between father and son is connected to this difference in perspective, to some degree, and hinges on the twin ideas of accepting others and accepting the past to love a life in the present. Cory finally agrees to attend Troy’s funeral, singing Troy’s song about Old Blue with Raynell, his half-sister. In this moment, Cory comes to hold a balanced view of his father, which is to say that he develops the capacity to see the good along with the bad. Cory can rise above the pain of the relationship. He is no longer harmed or haunted by strife with his father. Wilson gives insight in an interview about the black father and his relationship with his son. He states that many times the cycle of anger is passed down from generation to generation until it is broken. (Rose, August Wilson – Charlie Rose). This sense of history repeating itself is at the heart of their conflict, but arguably, it is not quite as personal or individualistic as Cory initially believes.
The issue of race and racism in post-World War II America is undeniable in Wilson’s work. He finds a way to show this in a unique manner. On one hand, the pain of segregation is present. However, segregation allowed a certain level of autonomy for African Americans to emerge. Troy’s dream of joining a baseball team only exist in terms of joining the Negro Leagues, a reflection of segregation. Unfortunately, “two America’s” were created as Wilson states in a discussion with Bill Moyer, “The social contract that white America has given blacks is if you want to participate in society, you have to deny who you are. You cannot participate in the society as Africans” (Rose, August Wilson – Charlie Rose). Blacks created their own during and after segregation. The black experience was unable to be viewed as just that an experience. Instead negative connotations surrounded it continuously to the present. In this wilson, shows that the cultural majority belief that once segregation ended, everything turned out to be for the better in the lives of African Americans is not exactly accurate. There was a transition period that ended up causing great damage to many African Americans who had to culturally acclimate themselves to being in the same world as White Americans. In this, one can see that integration was not merely a challenge for White people, but as intense a challenge for people of color, specifically African-Americans, as well. In doing so, Wilson argues that race is not the only factor that contributes to the silencing of African-American voices in American History. He is also demanding a closer examination of the economic conditions in our country that allow such discrimination to exist. (Blimpton and Lyons).
Conclusively, the setting, the themes and the social economical struggles are clear in Wilson’s play Fences. The play still has relevance in the 21st century. The setting of the play, in 1957, allows Wilson to explore how racial discrimination and oppression at the time impact the main characters. However, racial inequity is still a problem in the United States in the 21st century, even if the context is not the same as the setting of the play. Furthermore, the play investigates universal themes and issues that readers in different time periods and places can relate to. The theme of denied dreams and the difficulties of family dynamics within the black family can be viewed as a commonality for all people. Troy’s disappointment with his life, namely with his athletic career, causes him to project anger onto his family, especially his son, Cory. Troy feels like he has given up on his dreams to become the provider, he was unfairly dealt a “bad hand” but this is the way it was for those before him and those after him. Wilson allows the reader to see themselves or an experience through another’s eyes. This play has given an opportunity for the world to see a somewhat negative undertone of the black man or black family in a reality that can be regarded by all races throughout the world of literature as a source of greatness.
- Blimpton, George and Bonnie Lyons. August Wilson, The Art of Theater No. 14 1999.
- Roberts, Edgar V. and Robert Zweig. Literature An Introduction To Reading and Writing. n.d.: Pearson, 2015.
- Rose, Charlie. August Wilson – Charlie Rose 25 March 1996. .
- Rose, Charlie. August Wilson – Charlie Rose 25 February 1998. .
- Wilson, August. ‘Fences.’ Zweig, Robert and Edgar V Roberts. Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Pearson, 2015. 1430-1471.