Fences eNotes Lesson Plan
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By the end of this unit, students should be able to
- Discuss the symbolism of fences and baseball as they relate to Troy, Cory, and the African-American experience during the early civil rights movement;
- Identify dialogue that points to an increased desire for civil rights and equality for African Americans;
- Identify and discuss several dichotomies in the play, including young vs. old, new vs. old, and dreams vs. reality;
- Discuss how Troy’s past as a sharecropper’s son and a Negro Leagues player informs his viewpoints and actions;
- Identify reflections of the budding feminist movement in the character of Rose;
- Analyze and describe the complexities of the identities of Troy, Cory, and Rose;
- Analyze and describe major conflicts in the play.
Common Core Standards: RL.11-12.1, RL.11-12.2, RL.11-12.3, RL.11-12.4, RL.11-12.5, RL.11-12.10
Fences is set in August Wilson’s hometown, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The play is part of his Pittsburgh Cycle, a collection of stage dramas set in each of the decades of the twentieth century. A rich examination of the complexities of identity, Fences won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1987.
The play opens in 1957, during the very early stages of the civil rights movement. President Truman desegregated the military in 1948 by executive order. In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education desegregated schools, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized the Montgomery Bus boycott in 1955, leading to the Supreme Court’s decision in 1956 to desegregate buses. In 1957, the Little Rock Nine were escorted through angry crowds by the United States Army as these African-American students realized Brown’s promise of integrated classrooms. It is important to note that all of these early civil rights victories were the result of direct action by the federal government. At that point in the United States’ history, popular opinion had yet to shift toward racial equality, and African Americans were still largely disenfranchised. However, the “hot winds of change,” as Wilson notes in his introduction to the play, would soon sweep through American society. It is the historical context of the 1950s that informs the characters and conflicts in Fences.
In Wilson’s introduction to the drama, he establishes a broader historical context for the play, drawing a contrast between the European immigrants to Pittsburgh and the African Americans who came to the North as part of the Great Migration after the Civil War and through the early twentieth century. Wilson describes a sort of social contract that existed between the city and the European immigrants: “The city grew. It nourished itself and offered each man a partnership limited only by his talent, his guile, and his willingness and capacity for hard work. For the immigrants of Europe, a dream dared and won true.” In contrast, Wilson notes that African Americans in the city “collected wood and rags.” For European immigrants, the American Dream could become a reality; for African Americans, it had been an impossibility.
Troy Maxson, the protagonist in Fences, is a fifty-three-year-old African American garbage collector whose dream had been denied. As a young man, Troy had been an exceptionally talented baseball player in the Negro Leagues and had dreamed of playing in the Major Leagues, an opportunity denied him because of racial segregation in the sport. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball in 1947, but the milestone arrived too late for Troy. He had missed his chance. Years later, he still practices his swing, hitting a ball made of rags that hangs from a tree in his yard.
Troy’s bitterness at having been denied an opportunity for a career in Major League Baseball damages his relationship with his son, Cory, who is being recruited to play college football. Troy refuses to allow Cory to pursue his dream of playing football, insisting that he learn a trade instead. “That way you have something can’t nobody take away from you,” he says to Cory. A sharecropper’s son, Troy believes that being free is having something that cannot be taken away. Cory, growing up in a different era, believes that he will have civil rights and opportunities as an African American that Troy does not allow himself to imagine.
The title of Wilson’s play directs attention to the central symbol in the drama, one that can be interpreted figuratively in numerous ways. Do fences protect the Maxsons, as when Rose, Troy’s wife, sings, “Jesus, be a fence all around me every day”? Do “good fences make good neighbors,” as Robert Frost once wrote, and therefore mark Troy’s territory as his own? Or do fences create barriers in relationships and constrain the fulfillment of dreams? As Troy builds a fence in his yard, the other “fences” he has encountered and constructed in his life drive the play.
Some of the themes in Fences, such as tension between reality and dreams and between parent and teenage child are timeless. Other aspects of the play seem timely. More recently in American history, fences and the American Dream are associated with immigration debates, and events such as Hurricane Katrina and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement have drawn attention to disparities between the lives of African Americans and those of white Americans. Through an African-American family of another era, Wilson develops themes that continue to reverberate in American society.
This drama is appropriate for high school students (grades 11-12) who are learning the history of the civil rights movement in the United States.
About this Document
- An in-depth introductory lecture
- Discussion questions
- Vocabulary lists
- Section-by-section comprehension questions
- A multiple-choice test
- Essay questions