The play Fences was written in 1983 by the American author, August Wilson. In Fences Wilson examines the trials of black family life in racist America. The family is faced with racial segregation along with unchecked housing and job discrimination forces them to settle for far less than the American Dream. The main character, Troy is depicted as the tyrant and the doting who commands a full range of emotions from pity to disgust. His family and all other characters pale beside his boisterous elocutions and selfish codes of behavior. The parental mistake made by Troy Manson is inability to compromise with and understand his children. Wilson portrays that Troy Maxson’s decisions and actions reveal the cultural and historical issues surrounding African American fathers in 1950s America.
The main character of Fences, Troy, reflects the cultural environment of the period and his time. The play is based on a conflict between a father and his sons caused by misunderstanding and egoism of Troy. Troy Maxson is a fifty-three-year old garbage collector who still can recall ugly images of life under the iron rule of a frustrated, defeated father. At the same time, Troy tries the best way he knows how to direct the course of his own son’s life away from the negative influence of the boy’s ancestors. The main problem is that a top-notch baseball player during the Negro League’s heyday, Troy is too old to play on a desegregated Major League team. Troy asks Bono: “How in the hell they done changed? Bono replies: They got lots of colored boys playing ball now. Baseball and football (Wilson act 1, p. 12). Troy’s egoism affects his son Cory. Intense dramatic episodes show that Troy and Cory clash over the boy’s plans to become a football player. Troy explains “the white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway” (Wilson act 1, p. 35). When Cory is convinced by high school coaches that he has a future in football, he is quick to quit his after-school job at the local A&P. After Troy and his son Cory fight, Cory says “I’ll be back to get my things.” Troy replies, “They’ll be on the other side of that fence.” (act 2, p. 76). Troy, who has other plans for Cory’s future, secretly discourages an interested recruiter from scouting the boy’s talents. As expected, Troy and Cory have a major argument, in which Troy encounters more opposition than he has ever gotten from any member of his family. Troy responded to rejection and to the segregation that kept him from using his talents in Major League baseball by adopting sheer survivalist codes of behavior: he resorted to stealing, eventually murdered a man, and, as a result, was sentenced to fifteen years in a penitentiary (Shannon 66).
The culture of the 1950s is evident in Troy’s attitude towards baseball and attitude of his children to this kind of sport. While Troy considers Cory’s job at the A&P to be a fitting beginning to a future of similar work, Cory has his sights on much greater goals. Because Troy was virtually shut out of Major League baseball, he wants his son to have no part in collegiate sports. Some, like Troy Maxson, rationalize that their downright mean treatment of their sons prepares them for the similar treatment that awaits them in society. These men let no opportunity pass without reminding their sons that they are the unquestionable authorities in their homes. Troy tells Cory, “You a man. Now, let’s see you act like one. Turn your behind around and walk out this yard. And when you get out there in the alley… you can forget about this house. See? Cause this is my house” (Wilson act 2, 86). Troy denies his son’s coming manhood and continues to relish his powerful roles, as the sole provider, and as head of the Maxson household. Instead, acting in his usual autocratic manner, Troy maneuvers behind Cow’s back to destroy the boy’s chances of playing college football. He seems to gloat over this desperate display of authority, although it causes an already distant son to despise him. More important, Troy is the conspicuously absent father. The basic conflicts that emerged from such settings, therefore, revolved around the black female as sole head of the household, stoic in her resolve to hold her family together at all costs (Shannon 96).
Wilson portrays that Lyons, Troy’s son from a previous marriage, avoids confrontation and visits his father only when he wants a small loan; and Rose exists as a mere shadow in Troy’s presence until she learns that he has impregnated Alberta. However, throughout the play Lyons dislikes his father’s tactics and is not afraid to express his dissatisfaction, whether verbally, in the form of snide remarks, or physically, in a brief wrestling match. The other son, Cory, personifies optimism, but he must first confront and overcome the potentially emasculating dominance of the Maxson men. Cory suffers because of a father who has grown to regard him as “just another nigger on the street” (Wilson act 2, p. 87) and memories of a grandfather who sired children to be field hands, Cory is the hope of a new generation of black men. His unbridled enthusiasm about the possibility of attending college on a football scholarship suggests that he does not yet suffer from the defeatist attitudes that plagued the Maxson men before him. Interestingly Troy gets along marvelously with his first son, Lyons, who is an unemployed deadbeat musician. Despite his troubled relationship with Cory, Troy somehow feels that it is best that he humor Lyons to compensate for being a fifteen-year absentee father/convict. While he hands over Lyons’s usual $10 loan, the most resistance he can muster is, “Boy, your mama did a hell of a job raising you” (Wilson act 1, p. 18). However, it is Cory, the son with boundless aspirations for a lucrative career and a college education, whom Troy opposes more. Troy is indifferent towards his family trying to prove his power and authority. “You got to take the crookeds with the straights. That’s what Papa used to say” (Wilson act 1, p. 45). While on the surface it would appear that Troy is acting in Cory’s best interest, his motives reveal an undercurrent of jealousy prompted by a fear that Cory will exceed him on all counts. Trot says to Corry “Get your black ass out of my yard!” (Wilson act 2, p. 87), The causes of envy is that Troy cannot envision that his son’s athletic ability may finance his college education and does not even consider discussing the matter with Rose (Shannon 66).
The final scene takes place on the day of Troy’s funeral: one of his favorite concocted stories about doing battle with the grim reaper has caught up with him, and he has died while batting the rag doll he tied to a tree in the yard. Previously alienated, the family members respond to Troy’s death by tightening their communal bonds at this solemn occasion, and Rose gently convinces her prodigal son Cory to tear down the fences that have long existed between father and son. Troy was surprised at what the North had to offer: “I thought I was in freedom. Shhh. Colored folks living down there on the river banks in whatever kind of shelter they could find for themselves…. Living in shacks made of sticks and paper” (Wilson act 2, p. 54). Troy dies a lonely man, but with at least the hope that his son Cory would rise above the racism that had made him so bitter.
As a period piece, Fences like subsequent plays in Wilson’s history series, embodies the spirit of the decade in which it takes place with particular emphasis upon the often untold stories of African Americans. Set in 1971, the play has as its backdrop a politically and socially restless era during which Americans reeled from the effects of both domestic and international mayhem. The decade began in controversy with 425,000 American troops in Vietnam and an administration deadlocked in its war policy. In the summer of 1972, the Watergate scandal drew the media spotlight with events that began with five Republican agents being caught and arrested for breaking into Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C., and ended in August 1974 with the resignation of President Richard Nixon. The presidency of Jimmy Carter was weakened at home by “malaise” and abroad by the so-called Iran hostage crisis. Still, in 1976, the country was able to pull itself up out of the mire of domestic and foreign turmoil to celebrate its two hundredth birthday. Troy explains “the white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway” (Wilson act 1, p. 35). But the 1970s did not inspire all Americans to celebrate. African Americans, in particular, as Frederick Douglass had done some one hundred twenty years earlier, found any Fourth of July celebration to be a sham for those who remained oppressed. Discrimination still existed on all fronts, from the classroom to the workplace to the housing market. The Supreme Court regularly pressured reluctant school districts to propose desegregation plans for their public Schools; unemployment rates–especially among African American veterans–pushed up the national average; and blatant housing discrimination went unchecked (Shannon 43).
The symbolic use of a title, Fences, means a gap between the father and sons. August Wilson keeps his theatrical vision sharply in focus by concentrating more upon writing effective scripts and less upon casting media darlings to attract audiences. Later, he wrote scripts specifically for the actor so that Dutton might demonstrate his wide range of acting capabilities; however, Wilson and Richards agree that a play’s success should not rely on the appeal of any one cast member, no matter how stellar. Either directly or indirectly, some combination of the following themes runs through this and each of Wilson’s subsequent plays: black people’s need to establish and maintain ties with their immediate families as well as with their cultural ancestors; their mistaken devaluation of their own culture, prompted by a massive exodus from South to North after their emancipation; their heroic struggles and degrading compromises made to achieve economic stability; and the deterioration of their moral, spiritual, and familial values resulting from those compromises and that self-devaluation. To convey each of these major issues effectively in his work, Wilson continues to draw upon the dynamics of the blues, concerned that his audiences especially the black members–explore both the emotional and historical dimensions of his work and see themselves in the process (Shannon 43).
Despite racism’s role in determining the professional fate of these four black men, Troy does not portray interracial oppression as the single cause for family plight (Shannon 65). In what may be perceived as a reversal of the trend in plays of racial exploitation, the failures of Ma’s band seem to stem also from their own ignorance, their own apathy, and their own denial of their past. Thus, the play suggests that if African Americans continue to repress both their African and southern roots, they are destined to live troubled, stagnated lives. In their awkward attempts to compensate for that part of their identity that they have denied, some, like Toledo, adopt alien gods and mimic their ways while others, like Levee, in effect sell their souls to the devil to get ahead in America. Still others, like Slow Drag and Cutler, hide behind light humor or constant denial rather than draw strength from Africa’s nationalist possibilities. In its implicit appeal to African Americans to embrace the African continuum, Wilson directs the characters’ attention toward Africa as they struggle to retain their dignity and to establish themselves in an extremely racist postWorld War II America. Raisin exposes anti-African sentiments among modern blacks while presenting a strong subtext on the benefits of embracing Africa’s culture. The play Fences adopts a non=threatening, non=homiletic position toward Africa and, by so doing, still manage to reinforce the African continuum (Shannon 66).
Through the character of Troy, Wilson portrays that out of the fire and rhetoric of this period, he emerged as a different brand of revolutionary playwright: not quite comfortable with direct racial affronts, he writes tributes to his people’s culture and exposes the unheralded nobility in their endurance. Wilson’s Troy Maxson–while aware of white oppression and aggression on his job and in the sports arena–turns his attention to grabbing as much gusto during his middle-aged years as he can. Wilson found that listening, not manipulating, was the key to writing realistic dialogue (Shannon 66).
Increasingly Wilson realized that writing realistic dialogue, creating more complex central characters, and improving focus were only a portion of what he needed to master to become successful at writing plays. He also needed to learn technical aspects of the craft, specifically those that required a working knowledge of what actors can and cannot do on stage during a performance, and to become familiar with what stage crews could perform within a limited time frame. Most important, he needed to know his responsibility, as a playwright, to the audience (Shannon 51). While mingling among fellow aspiring playwrights and enjoying the benefits of expert professional coaching, Wilson was more comfortable with identifying and addressing weaknesses in his unrefined style. The unwieldy story lines, unrealistic dialogue, and lack of proportion that detracted from early plays were confronted in an environment of constructive criticism. Inspired by the encouragement his work was receiving there, Wilson decided to try the O’Neill Center once again; this time he sent his latest work, Fences (Shannon 66).
Troy has invested in the economic system that rejects his comrades and can now look forward to a regular income. Although middle age has slowed him down considerably, he once painted houses for a living. Like Memphis, Troy is one of those old men who found a way into the economic game that excluded many other black men. On the day that he is conspicuously absent from his regular perch in the cafe, he has gone downtown to apply for Social Security payments. Now, without fear of poverty, he can afford to sit around Memphis’s place daily doling out wisdom while witnessing others wrestle with hard times. A chief irony in Two Trains Running is that, although the play is essentially a succession of stories, eagerly related, one character does not participate.
Unlike Troy, whose conversation is severely limited because of his mental handicap, Like Troy Maxson of Fences, they give up their dreams and do whatever is required to survive. As grown black men with no demonstrable skills to put them into a legitimate workforce, The same system that spends thousands of dollars in attempts to rehabilitate its inmates and reposition them in society seriously considers lengthening his stay simply because he is a star football player within its sports program. The same system that withholds him from society for five years releases him to resume his squalid life with a better chance of returning to prison than of finding gainful employment. Given up by his own mother and ultimately becoming an orphan, he tells a heartrending story of a very erratic childhood. There is no mention of a father in his recollections, yet he does acknowledge some sort of bond with an orphanage worker whose death hastens his steady decline into criminal activities. The willingness to bleed, like a number of other resonant themes Wilson uses to characterize the black man’s struggle in America, surfaces in several of his works. Troy bleeds when he is stabbed during a fateful brawl. Loomis bleeds when he wounds his chest with a knife. Sterling bleeds when he cuts his hand on Lutz’s glass casing. Wilson’s no doubt controversial sanction of crime and violence as a means of equalizing justice in America for blacks echoes the similarly controversial ideology he shared with fellow revolutionary activists of the 1960s. Thus, the way he sees it, one’s willingness to go back to pick up the ball overshadows whatever else is done or said in the process; actions, not words, are of paramount importance (Shannon 33).
Troy, as a father, influences ideals of his sons and their personal values. Wilson describes that audiences who expect the wealth of stories that are told in Memphis’s cafe to wind up as parts of a neatly arranged plot soon discover that this is not to be. By deliberately emphasizing the stories themselves, not plot and action, Wilson forces the audience to listen differently and invokes an atmosphere reminiscent of African tribal customs. These are not just Wilson’s incorporation of a black cultural tradition but they are also, for several of the characters, a remaining source of power. In a world where economic concerns prevent black men like Fences‘s Troy Maxson from sustaining family ties and where a lack of money is perceived as an affront to their manhood, What attracted black audience were the exclusive invitations she extended to them through her lyrics–invitations to commiserate as well as to acknowledge proudly the existence of their mutual culture. If they could not reverse their misfortunes, at least they were able together to grapple with the enormity of them. Yet silence should not suggest that the emotions expressed by various members of her band are alien to her. Troy is a defiant but flawed symbol of success in this northern environment. Judged by the standards of other black women in profession in the late 1950s, he clearly outdistances them (Shannon 57).
In sum, troublesome relationships between Troy and his sons cause sufferings to all of them. Troy Maxson is fiercely proud of his so-called paternal responsibility, yet he is ashamed of sons who choose not to follow their father example. Although Cory’s failure to hold his job and his ambitions to play college football show lack of parental support and love so important for children. Wilson portrays challenges faced by fathers and sons who need to find their place in the society. The nonstop personal narratives in Fences reflect a culture that has traditionally honored vocal expression. Wilson had earlier provided a striking practitioner of this time-honored cultural form in Troy Maxson, one of his most talkative characters. This ability to listen would also serve Wilson well as a poet and later as a playwright struggling to find appropriate substance for his work and trying to write realistic dialogue. He soon discovered that his ear provided the very essence of his creative skills. Values and ideals of Troy shapes personal values of his children, in spite of the fact that they have personal conflict with the father and reject his views and advice. Moreover, Wilson has come to understand the demanding and sometimes vicious world of the 1950s–a world where the personal success is too often based upon artistic merit.
Shannon, Sandra G. August Wilson’s Fences: A Reference Guide (Greenwood Guides to Literature). Greenwood Press, 2003.
Wilson, A. Fences. Plume, 1986.