August Wilson, in his play Fences, explores the notion of the “American Dream” from the perspective of those who have been denied their rightful place in a democratic society. Early suggestions that Wilson intends to portray his main protagonist, Troy Maxson, as a victim of a system, designed to keep him from the opportunities presumably afforded all American citizens, come in the playwright’s preface and directions intended to set the tone of the production. In describing the play’s setting, the gritty steel town of Pittsburgh in the late 1950s (specifically,1957) Wilson notes the avenues to pursue the American Dream afforded the European immigrants who built that city while emphasizing the racist practices that kept African Americans from having a seat at the table:
“Near the turn of the century, the destitute of Europe sprang on the city with tenacious claws and an honest and solid dream. The city devoured them. . .The descendants of African slaves were offered no such welcome or participation. They came from places called the Carolinas and the Virginias, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. They came strong, eager, searching. The city rejected them . . .”
Troy Maxson is 53-years-old, and this former gifted baseball player is only now able to provide for his family by working as a garbageman. Much of Wilson’s play focuses on the bitterness that lingers in this man. Jackie Robinson has broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and teams are integrating their rosters to exploit the considerable pool of talent arbitrarily denied them by virtue of the nation’s history of racism and segregation. For Troy, that integration of a game came too late. His playing days are well-behind him, and all he can do now is watch others reap the benefits of his and others’ earlier efforts. Wilson includes, early in Act I of Fences, an exchange between Troy and his friend Bono, in which the former laments the mediocrity that is visible on the baseball field in the person of white Yankees outfielder George Selkirk:
“Selkirk! That’s it! Man batting .269, understand? .269. What kind of sense that make? I was hitting .432 with thirty-seven home runs! Man batting .269 and playing right field for the Yankees!”
To Troy’s wife Rose’s observation that Jackie Robinson and other “colored” baseball players are now common sightings in the major leagues, Troy retorts:
“. . .What you talking about Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson wasn’t nobody. I’m talking about if you could play ball they ought to have let you play. Don’t care what color you were. Come telling me I come along too early. If you could play . . . then they ought to let you play.”
“They,” however, didn’t let him play, nor did “they” let hundreds of other gifted African American athletes play. The Negro Leagues produced some of the finest baseball players in the history of the game, but few know their names because they toiled in obscurity as a direct result of racial segregation. The “they” to whom Troy refers denied the opportunity to pursue the American Dream to blacks just because of the color of their skin.