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."