The Play (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
The central action of Fences unfolds in the space of a few months in the late 1950’s; it is 1957 when the play begins. The last scene takes place in 1965, on the day of the funeral of the protagonist, Troy Maxson. On that day, the other characters in the play come to terms with the flawed human being who has been the most powerful force in their lives. Their effort to arrive at a just understanding of this man duplicates the effort in which the play involves its audience. Fences offers a sympathetic but unsentimental portrait of its unforgettable central character.
In 1957, Troy Maxson is fifty-three years old. He has been married for eighteen years to Rose, whose devotion to him has not necessarily blinded her to the more difficult traits of his character. Their son, Cory, is a high school senior, and his accomplishments on the football field have led to his being sought by a recruiter from a college in North Carolina. Troy also has a thirty-four-year-old son, Lyons, by a previous marriage. Lyons’s visits to his father are generally motivated by a desire to borrow money.
Troy also has a brother, Gabe, who as a result of a war injury carries a metal plate in his head; in his damaged mind, he carries the conviction that he is the Archangel Gabriel. Troy feels guilty that money paid to Gabe for his disability has made it possible for Troy to buy the house in which he now lives. Troy has provided Gabe with a roof over his...
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The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
Fences depicts the quiet collapse of an ordinary African American family in the late 1950’s. The breakdown of Troy Maxson’s family centers on the struggle between father and son over conflicting visions of black identity, aspirations, and values. The first act presents Troy as a dutiful provider for his wife, Rose, and his son, Cory; he has steady employment as a sanitation worker. Troy’s past, however, has left him a scarred man—a man of boundless energy and boisterous bitterness. Troy’s childhood was soured by a stern and overbearing father. Troy experienced racism as an African American athlete in the late 1950’s: Although he had proven he had the ability to play professional baseball, he was prevented by his color from playing in the major leagues. Frustrated throughout his young life, Troy was driven to crime and ended in jail. There is no aspect of his life in which he does not feel confined—fenced in. Because Troy is unable to rid himself of the pain and poverty of his past, his adult life is constricted. Throughout the play there is a silent visual reminder of this constriction—an unfinished fence that Troy has been building around his backyard.
The tension between Troy and his younger son, Cory, in the first act is one among several important elements of the play. Troy is both bitterly jealous and protective of Cory, who is being recruited by a local college for a football scholarship. Troy refuses to let Cory accept the...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Maxson home. African American home in an unspecified city, possibly Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Maxsons’ yard, which is an extension of their house, represents Troy Maxson’s ambivalent feelings: his spirit, large like his body, desires the rootedness of home but resists its limitations. The responsibilities of his family bind him even more closely than did the prison in which he has spent fifteen years. The yard keeps Troy close to home, yet is not as confining as the house itself. The unfenced yard also signifies the era of the play, a time when African Americans were soon to loosen the bonds of some legal and social restraints, with the turbulent Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.
As Troy’s friend Bono comments, “some people build fences to keep people out . . . and other people build fences to keep people in.” The partially built fence surrounding the Maxsons’ yard represents the conflicts of the play. Rose, Troy’s wife, wants a fence to keep her world safe, to keep the family close, but to Troy, the fence represents confinement, so he has delayed its completion. The bond between Rose and Troy, like the incomplete fence, fails to prevent Troy’s straying with another woman. Troy’s inner fences and the fences that the white world has built around him trap him in his meager-paying job. The literal fence, that Troy and Cory were to have built together, could have strengthened their relationship, but...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
August Wilson introduces his audience to the primary conflict in Fences at the very beginning of the play. All the characters are introduced in act 1, and their interrelationships are explained; the conflict between father and son is imminent. In Troy’s stubborn effort to prevent his own harsh history from repeating itself with his son Cory, Troy imposes his legacy on Cory’s dreams and aspirations. Heinous and misguided as Troy’s anger is, it does not seem irrational, because Wilson makes the audience understand the facts of Troy’s life. In a gripping speech (act 1, scene 4), Troy takes the audience along every painful mile of his “walking blues.” Fleeing from the rural racism of the South only to encounter the impoverished slums of the North, Troy Maxson epitomizes the African American males of his generation who were psychologically scarred by their social status: They were neither slaves nor free men.
Act 2, scene 1, further complicates the conflict between Troy and Cory, as Wilson creates conflict among other characters. The turning point of the play occurs when Rose attacks Troy for crossing her boundaries. This crucial moment changes the direction of the action and paves the way for the complications to unwind. The process by which Cory and the others reconcile themselves with Troy—and retrieve the pride he lost—is manifested in the play’s affecting denouement: It can only be accomplished after Troy’s death. Though the...
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By 1957, the year in which Fences is set, black athletes had become an integrated part of professional and college sports, at least on the surface. The all-white teams of the World War II—and previous—years began to include blacks in 1947 when Jackie Robinson became the first black to play professional baseball since the color line was drawn in the 1890s. But the change still did not bring the same opportunity and equality as blacks might have hoped. Black leagues began to falter and disappear as more blacks began to support the now integrated ball teams. Troy Maxson, who had played in the Negro Leagues, found the change to integrated leagues had come too late; he was now too old to play professional ball.
The Negro Leagues had been financial disasters for players; salaries were inadequate to support a family. But, ten years after integration, the major leagues did not prove to be a financial bonanza for black players either. The huge salaries that were to become the hallmark of professional sports in the 1980s and 1990s simply did not exist in the late 1950s. The picture for college athletics was also different for blacks than for whites. Black players were not always permitted to live in campus housing, and when they traveled to games, black athletes were sometimes refused accommodations at hotels where the team was staying. Instead, black players were dropped off at the YMCA or lodged with black...
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A major division in a drama. In Greek plays the sections of the drama signified by the appearance of the chorus and were usually divided into five acts. This is the formula for most serious drama from the Greeks to the Romans to Elizabethan playwrights like William Shakespeare. The five acts denote the structure of dramatic action. They are exposition, complication, climax, falling action, and catastrophe. The five act structure was followed until the nineteenth century when Henrik Ibsen (A Doll's House) combined some of the acts. Fences is a two-act play. The exposition and complication are combined in the first act when the audience learns of Troy's affair with another woman and of the conflict between father and son, the role sports plays in each man's life. The climax occurs in the second act when Troy must admit to having fathered a child with his mistress. The climax to the father-son friction also occurs in the second act when the conflict between Troy and Cory escalates, and Cory leaves his father's home for good. The catastrophe also occurs in this act when the players assemble for Troy's funeral and Cory is finally able to deal with his resentment and accept his father's failings.
The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic...
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Compare and Contrast
1957: Ku Klux Klansmen accuse Alabama grocery-chain truck driver Willie Edwards, 25, of having made remarks to a white woman and force him at pistol point to jump to his death from the Tyler Goodwin Bridge into the Alabama River. It was Edwards's first day on the truck route.
1985: Philadelphia police try to dislodge members of MOVE, an organization of armed blacks. They firebomb a house from the air on May 13 and the fire spreads to adjacent houses, killing 11 and leaving 200 homeless.
Today: A black woman, previously on public assistance, organizes a million woman rally in Philadelphia. This variant on the 1996 million man march on Washington D.C. draws more than one million black women in a show of strength and solidarity.
1957: The Motown Corporation is founded in Detroit, Michigan, by entrepreneur Barry Gordy Jr., 30, who invests $700 to start a recording company whose "Motown Sound" will figure large in popular music for more than two decades.
1985: The Color Purple, a film based on Alice Walker's novel, is a top grossing box office success for star Whoopi Goldberg and director Steven Spielberg.
Today: Rosewood, a film based on actual events that occurred in 1927, examines the massacre that destroyed a small Florida town after a white woman...
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Topics for Further Study
What is the nature of the conflict between Cory and Troy? Research the options for black athletes who were recruited by colleges in the 1950s Do you find that Troy's reservations about Cory's future as a ballplayer have merit?
Troy cannot read and so the oral tradition is an important means of communication for him. He tells his life story in Act I, scene iv. But he also tells part of his story through song. Research the role of storytelling as a part of the black experience. Consider also how the oral tradition has been replaced in many cultures by the printed page. Do you think that the oral tradition is a disappearing part of the American cultural experience?
In Fences, Troy's description of the devil eventually evolves into a description of a white salesman who cheats his black customers because they are too afraid to question his pronouncements, and thus, they allow themselves to be cheated. Examine the commercial relationship between whites and blacks in the 1950s. Is Troy's cynicism justified by the facts?
Early in Wilson's play, music and athletics are singled out the best opportunities for young black men to escape the ghetto existence of black urban life. Later, Cory joins the Marines, but is this an escape? In 1964, the United States is beginning a build-up of military strength in Vietnam, it will evolve into a war that will eventually be lost. What exactly did the military offer young black men? Research the role...
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What Do I Read Next?
Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969) offers an autobiographical look at the American black experience. This book provides a feminine perspective of the effects of racism.
The Wedding Band (1966), a play by Alice Childress examines racism and intolerance through the eyes of a couple who are trying to find acceptance for their interracial love affair. Because the subject was so controversial, the play was not produced until several years after it was written.
A Raisin in the Sun (1959) by Lorraine Hansberry also explores segregation, racism, and the lack of economic opportunities that beset African Americans. The integration of white neighborhoods by minority families is still an important issue nearly forty years after this play was first produced.
The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker is a fictional look at the effects of segregation and racism both within black culture and between blacks and whites. The novel (and Steven Spielberg's later movie adaptation) celebrate the strength of black women.
Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970) examines what it means to grow up black and female in America. Morrison...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Barnes, Clive. "Fiery 'Fences'" in the New York Post, March 27,1987.
Birdwell, Christine. "Death as a Fastball on the Outside Corner. Fences's Troy Maxson and the American Dream'' in Aethlon; The Journal of Sport Literature, Vol. 8, no. l. Fall, 1990, pp. 87-96.
Ching, Mel-Ling. "Wrestling against History" in Theater, Vol. 19, no. 3, Summer-Fall, 1988, pp. 70-71.
DeVries, Hilary. "A Song in Search of Itself" in American Theatre, Vol. 3, no. 10, January, 1987, pp. 22-25.
Elam, Harry J., Jr. "Of Angels and Transcendence; An Analysis of Fences by August Wilson and Roosters by Milcha Sanchez-Scott" in Staging Difference; Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama, edited by Marc Manfort, Peter Lang (New York), 1995, pp. 287-300.
Henderson, Heather. "Building Fences: An Interview with Mary Alice and James Earl Jones" in Theater, Vol. 16, no. 3, Summer-Fall, 1985, pp. 67-70.
Pereira, Kim. "August Wilson" in Reference Guide to American Literature, edited by Jim Kamp, third edition, St. James Press, 1994, pp. 919-21.
Shafer, Yvonne. "Breaking Barriers: August Wilson" in Staging Difference: Cultural Pluralism in American Theatre and Drama, edited by Marc Manfort, Peter Lang, 1995. pp. 267-85....
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Awkward, Michael. “‘The Crookeds with the Straights’: Fences, Race, and the Politics of Adaptation.” In May All Your Fences Have Gates, edited by Alan Nadel. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994. Discusses what happens when a play such as Fences becomes adapted into film. Includes Wilson’s suggestions concerning directorial qualifications and claim of ownership over language production and representation of blackness.
Berkowitz, Gerald M. “August Wilson.” In American Drama of the Twentieth Century. London: Longman, 1992. Troy’s tragedy is that, although he represents the first generation of black Americans to progress into the middle class through pride and determination, his instinct is to preserve and consolidate what he has.
Birdwell, Christine. “Death as a Fastball on the Outside Corner: Fences’ Troy Maxson and the American Dream.” Aethlon 8 (Fall, 1990): 16-25.
Brown, Chip. “The Light in August.” Esquire 111 (April, 1989): 116. Wilson emphasizes black life on its own terms, not in confrontation with the white system. Parts of Fences may be inspired by Wilson’s uneasy relationship with his stepfather.
Fishman, Joan. “Developing His Song: August Wilson’s Fences.” In August Wilson: A...
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