Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)
Fences is one of four plays in which August Wilson presents African American history through the psychological impact that history has on his characters. Each play is set in a different era, and all Wilson’s characters are representative of the principal social concerns of their period. In Fences, the plot and the characters are largely drawn from the African American social and cultural milieu he knew as a youngster growing up in the all-black Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Although there are no whites in the play, every conflict is ignited or at least fanned by the racism that the characters encounter offstage. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (pr. 1984) was Wilson’s first play to explore the African American’s cultural response to oppression—the blues. Ma Rainey reflects on the nature of the blues: “White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.” With Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Wilson has written his own blues—a creative act which links him to the African American literary tradition so influenced by African American music. Many critics agree that Wilson’s attack on white racism in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is made more subtle and piercing by his focusing on the tensions that racism creates in its victims, and this oblique strategy is even more successful in his second play, Fences.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (pr. 1986), Wilson’s third play, depicts the upheaval associated with the African Americans’ migration from the South to the North in the aftermath of emancipation. Whereas in Fences Wilson struggles under the burden of presenting Troy Maxson, in part, as a positive black male with some sense of human dignity, he comes closer to this goal in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Herald Loomis, the character at the center of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, comes North with his young daughter in search of the wife he has not seen for seven years. Loomis has spent that time in peonage to Joe Turner, a dreaded white bounty hunter immortalized in song by W.C. Handy. Despite the burden that Loomis’ daughter must pose for a man of his generation, he never walks away from his child, as many men might. Herald Loomis characterizes the positive African American male role model that August Wilson knew from his own black community. The Piano Lesson (pr. 1988), Wilson’s fourth play, continues to carry out his exploration of the struggles that have swallowed up black manhood.
Fences received much critical acclaim, winning a Tony Award for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize for drama. August Wilson, a major African American dramatist, has a finely-tuned ear for the poetry, humor, and invective of the African American experience, a sure instinct for crackling dramatic incident, and a passionate commitment to an important subject.