Critical Overview

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Last Updated August 17, 2023.

When Fences first opened on Broadway in March of 1987, Wilson had already spent four years in pre-production revisions to his play. James Earl Jones, who won a Tony Award for his performance in the Broadway production, had first played Troy Maxson in the Yale Repertory Theatre production two years earlier. His ease and interpretation of an already familiar character were evident to reviewers who hailed Jones's performance. Allan Wallach, in his Newsday review, said that Jones gave this role "its full measure of earthiness and complexity." Jones, said Wallach, was at his best when Troy is drinking and laughing with his friends; his "performance is at its heartiest in the bouts of drinking and bantering." Wallach also singled out Wilson's ability to capture the "rhythms of his characters" who gather in the yard of the Maxson home, a yard that "becomes a rich portrait of a man who scaled down his dreams to fit inside his run-down yard." Wallach's review is an acknowledgment of Wilson's strength in "depicting a black man forced to come to terms with an unfeeling white world." However, Wallach also found that the scenes where Troy interacts with his family sometimes fell to conventional family fare.

Reviewer Clive Barnes offered no such distinction in his review that appeared in the New York Post. Barnes called Fences a play that "seems to break away from the confines of art into a dense, complex realization of reality." Fences is a play that makes the audience forget it is in a theater, thinking instead that they are witnessing a real family drama. Barnes also singled out Jones for praise in a role that left the reviewer "transfixed." But Wilson was also praised for writing drama "so engrossing, so embracing, so simply powerful" that he transcended an effort to label him a Black playwright. Instead, Wilson's ability to tell a story makes such labels, in Barnes's opinion, "irrelevant." Barnes also praised the play for its historic relevance and cited the lessons Troy learned while in prison and his experience playing baseball. Barnes declared that Wilson has created "the strongest, most passionate American dramatic writing since Tennessee Williams." Barnes's review contained no reservations. He praised the actors, noting that Jones' performance was not the only excellent one of the production and offered equal approval for the staging and setting. The sum total of these elements resulted in what Barnes described as "one of the richest experiences I have ever had in the theatre."

Edwin Wilson's praise of Fences was just as full of compliments as that of Barnes and Wallach. In his Wall Street Journal review, Wilson stated that with Fences, the author had demonstrated that he can "strike at the heart, not just of the black experience, but of the human condition." Troy is a character who is multi-dimensional; his complexity reveals a man "with the full measure of his shortcomings as well as his strengths " The audience witnesses the characters' depth of ambition, their frustration, and their pain, according to this reviewer. As did other reviewers, Wilson also noted the exceptional quality of the setting and the staging. Fences, said Wilson, is "an especially welcome and important addition to the season."

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Critical Evaluation


Essays and Criticism