Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

Winner of the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, a Tony Award, and a Pulitzer Prize, Fences is among the most honored plays by any American of August Wilson’s generation. Set in 1957, it is one entry in Wilson’s cycle of ten plays representing the African American struggle during the ten decades of the twentieth century. Wilson wrote as a self-proclaimed Black Nationalist, but his mature plays were enthusiastically received by multiracial audiences, and Wilson recorded the pleasure he experienced when an eighty-seven-year-old Yugoslavian man spoke of his identification with Wilson’s characters. Wilson’s work delved so deeply into the world he knew that what he found there spoke far beyond his particular experience.

Certainly an awareness of the history of the oppression and exploitation suffered by African Americans plays a significant part in Wilson’s work. In Fences, the white baseball owners who have denied Troy and others their opportunity to play in the major leagues and the sanitation department officials who reserve the driving jobs for whites impose limits on black aspirations. Wilson refuses, however, to grant the oppressors and exploiters a place at the heart of African American life. Beyond question, they often place limiting external conditions upon that life. Wilson is concerned, though, not with the surrounding conditions of African American life but with the life itself. African Americans have, in Wilson’s eyes, their own identity, dignity, and significance. Troy Maxson is not defined by the limits that are imposed on him by a white-dominated society. His struggle is in part against those limits, to be sure. It is also, however, a struggle against his own demons. In the course of that struggle, he finds his strength. That is why his failure has the force of tragedy.