Places: Fences

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1985 in Theater magazine

First produced: 1985, at the Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven, Connecticut

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Domestic realism

Time of work: 1957-1965

Places DiscussedMaxson home

Maxson Fenceshome. 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 Troy’s procrastination and Cory’s dreams of winning a football scholarship prevent this outcome. However, Troy, too, desires to keep things out; he wants to keep out Death, with whom he had once wrestled and won. Ironically, Troy completes the literal fence after his complete alienation from his wife and son, and his fence finally fails to keep out Death.

BibliographyAwkward, 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 Casebook, edited by Marilyn Elkins. New York: Garland, 1994.Freedman, Samuel G. “A Voice from the Streets.” The New York Times Magazine 136 (March 15, 1987): 36. Fences reflects Wilson’s concern with legacy.Gordon, Joanne. “Wilson and Fugard: Politics and Art.” In August Wilson: A Casebook, edited by Marilyn Elkins. New York: Garland, 1994. Seeks to interpret Fences by emphasizing its universal qualities as well as concentrating on the political significance of the piece in terms of the overt political philosophy of white South African artist Athol Fugard.Harrison, Paul Carter. “August Wilson’s Blues Poetics.” In Three Plays, by August Wilson. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991. Unlike Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), Troy has no respect for the limitations imposed on him by a hostile world. Troy’s declarations of patriarchal au-thority resonate in the hearts and minds of most African Americans.Henderson, Heather. “Building Fences: An Interview with Mary Alice and James Earl Jones.” Theater 16 (Summer/Fall, 1985): 67-70. Mary Alice and James Earl Jones performed the roles, respectively, of Rose and Troy Maxson when Fences opened at the Yale Repertory Theater. In this interview, they discuss the development of their characters, both as directed by Lloyd Richards and as guided by their own spontaneity.Kester, Gunilla Theander. “Approaches to Africa: The Poetics of Memory and the Body in Two August Wilson Plays.” In August Wilson: A Casebook, edited by Marilyn Elkins. New York: Garland, 1994. Examines how Fences and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1986) highlight the metaphoric relationship between black American history and the black body. Shows how bringing the past into the present often leaves Wilson’s characters trapped in a sense of futility.Pereira, Kim. August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1995.Reed, Ishmael. “August Wilson: The Dramatist as Bearer of Tradition.” In Writin’ Is Fightin’: Thirty-seven Years of Boxing on Paper. New York: Atheneum, 1988. Fences is informed by Wilson’s belief that a man should have responsibility for his family.Shannon, Sandra G. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1995.Shannon, Sandra G. “The Good Christian’s Come and Gone: The Shifting Role of Christianity in August Wilson Plays.” MELUS 16 (Fall, 1989): 127-142. Discusses how some of Wilson’s characters, such as Levee (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Troy Maxson (Fences), Herald Loomis (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone), and Boy Willie (The Piano Lesson), impose their authority and overshadow other characters. In their abandonment of Christianity and withdrawal from the religion of their ancestors, they construct their own self-serving and liberating dogma.
Categories: Places