August Wilson is known as an African American playwright who created The Pittsburgh Cycle, a series of ten plays, one of which was “Fences.” Each of those plays is the representation of each decade from 1900 to 2000 and shows particular experiences of African Americans during the corresponding time (Menson-Furr, 11). “Fences” came along in 1950s, and the premiere was given in 1985. The play is an exclusive piece of art, and it held a message, which will be discovered in this paper, on many levels. This paper is intended to analyze the play “Fences” from a historical perspective with the use of practical criticism. Due to the latter, the paper will analyze how the plot and scenes of the play can represent specific historical background and culture.
The plot of the play is moving around the main character Troy Maxson, an African American man who faces various difficulties with providing for his family throughout his life. The playwright starts to write the play at the time when Pittsburg has been modifying from “European immigrants to the masses of African Americans” (Menson-Furr, 10) during The Great Migration (1916-1930). As that process is crucial both in the American history and in the story of Troy Maxson, it is quite adequately showed at the exposition of the play. At the age of 14, he decided to move to the North searching for better life, but it turned out that the promises were not always proved by the reality. Being desperate with getting food for himself, he steals; and after he gets married and becomes a father, he continues stealing for another three months. Once, Troy accidentally commits murder, and he goes to jail for the next 15 years for that. In jail, Troy discovers baseball that becomes a real joy in his life. After the release, Troy begins to play for the American Negro Baseball League, dreaming to go further and play in White League. The play, which started in 1957, holds the timeline of 8 years of Troy’s life (Menson-Furr, 18). Nowadays, Troy is a family man who lives with his wife Rose, their son Cory, and his brother Gabriel being mentally ill after his military service. His son from the first marriage, Lyon, lives with his girlfriend and stays in touch with his father. Being a successful baseball player in the past and a member of a trash company at present, Troy tries to keep up and get what he deserves in his opinion.
The picture of American baseball of the 1950s is well described in the play in relation to the history. The history of the sport for African Americans was significantly changed in 1947, when player Jackie Robinson crossed the baseball’s so-called “color line.” For more than 60 years, every owner of a major or minor clubs knew that no blacks were invited into the league. In 1920, the Negro National Baseball League was founded, but the real chance for African American to improve themselves in a certain sport was revealed only in the 1950s. The baseball life of African Americans was pretty difficult before that period: they had to play almost every day to compete and accept sometimes horrible conditions of living like low incomes and terrible quality of hotel rooms and food. In addition to that, they were treated discriminatively and often noticed that people respected them better when they were “outside the borders of the United States, the so-called land of the free” (Koprince, 350). In Fences, in turn, the name of Jackie Robinson and the problem of the color barrier in baseball were also mentioned when Rose and Troy’s best friend Bono claimed that since Jackie Robinson broke the barrier, the new times in baseball have come and the situation would probably end differently. Moreover, Troy argues that “There ought not never have been no time called too early! … What you talking about Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson wasn’t nobody. “(Wilson 9-10). Here, Troy points that Robinson’s merit in African Americans’ development in “white” league in not so big because he is not as good being a player. That might be confusing due to the fact that both Robinson and Maxson are pioneers in their areas: first one in National Baseball League, and the second one in driver position in the company where he works. Those positions are not close enough to be compared, but their challenges are.
The baseball game bears one additional function in the play. The game had been used as a metaphor for an American dream for a very long time. In Fences, it can be seen how the protagonist was running for it in both senses: in terms of the right to play baseball professionally and to live the American dream. Taking into account Troy’s desire to be free, the baseball game once again becomes a representative of what he dreams of. Opposite to his wishes, Troy does not allow his son Cory to improve himself in football, even though the boy is a good player and his college gives him opportunities. Moreover, Troy goes to the college and demands to expel his son from a team. It is interesting that Troy explains his action by his desire to protect Cory from the denial that Troy experienced in baseball himself. However, when his son from the first marriage comes on to ask for money for his singer career, Troy disapproves the idea but lends the money anyway.
It is conspicuous how the main character suffers from the lack of confidence. Troy becomes a representative of a black man of the mid-1950s who feels violated and thus pitifully. The first problem that brings a spiritual weakness to Troy was the denial to continue his career in baseball. Troy was playing baseball professionally till he was 40 years old; and after his career was interrupted because of him not becoming a member of “white” team, he was depressed and claimed that it was all due to the color of his skin. The second biggest issue that brought difficulties to him was his way of life. Even when he met his woman, he felt unhappy because he had to work hard to support his wife and son financially. An important point here is that Troy did not pay much attention to the mental caring of his family. The supportive scene is when Cory came to his father and asked him why the man had never liked him. To that, Troy gives his son a hard time and says that he does not have to like his son. Taking his father as an example again, Troy says that he has a responsibility for his son, he had to raise him, feed him, but there is no law that says he has to love his son.
The separate issue about Troy’s way is that it seems he always wanted to be free and independent. The need for freedom is shown not only in his escape from the South, but also in Troy’s affair with Alberta, who will later get pregnant by him. Even when Rose was already familiar with Troy’s cheating, he still kept seeing his lover. It is interesting that Troy himself says about his father that the latter “felt a responsibility toward us .... without that responsibility he could have walked off and left us ... made his own way” (Wilson, 147). With that idea of his father, Troy wanted to be better claiming that he has, as he says, a “different idea of myself” (Wilson, 163). Nevertheless, Troy did betray his father, wife, and son. Nadel states that “Troy voices his betrayal as a profoundly American black man’s blues” (41) when the protagonist tries to explain his actions to Rose. In that speech, Troy even points at his desire of freedom with the words: “It’s not easy for me to admit that I been standing in the same place for eighteen years” (Wilson, 165). By doing so, he underlines that he is, to say at least, not quite happy. Rose, in her turn, stands for the same rights of freedom in relation to her, pointing that Troy’s needs are rather selfish than romantic: “I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams and I buried them inside you. … I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn't take me no eighteen years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn't never gonna bloom.” (Wilson, 165). That situation reflects the hierarchy in black families in the mid-1950, when women’s rights were rarely seen as equal to the men’s ones.
The play also focuses on the problem of racial discrimination of the African Americans in the 1950s. For instance, the President Dwight D. Eisenhower stated that “there must be no second class citizens in this country” in 1954 (Menson-Furr, 9) after the historic Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education case. That year, a group of black students received the special status of “The Little Rock Nine” as they were the first black students who enrolled into the Little Rock’s Central High School (Menson-Furr, 9). In accordance to that, Wilson “situates Fences among the winds of change”, which is expressed with Troy’s desire of being promoted from “the back of the truck as a garbage can lifter, to the front of the truck as a driver” (Menson-Furr, 9). After asking his white employer, Mr. Rand, the question: “Why? Why you got the white mens driving and the colored lifting?” (Wilson, 106), Troy finally gets his promotion. In the play, Wilson points out to the fact that “the hot winds of change that would make the sixties a turbulent, racing, dangerous, and provocative decade had not yet begun to blow full” (104). He indicates with this that Troy’s little triumph on a work area is just the beginning. Truly, mirroring also in his behavior throughout the play when the protagonist is always unhappy with what he has got and wants more, the play expresses the never-ending process of fighting for equality, which is ongoing even now.
As the playwright had written ten plays in regard to the history of discrimination of African Americans, it is expected that he wisely prepares his works due to historical compliance. The paper analyzed the facts from the play with the help of additional sources and practical criticism. As it could be seen, the play is quite compliant with the historical and cultural background of the African Americans in the North America in the 1950s. All facts are well described and help to image the whole picture of the decade, as the August Wilson intended to do so. Additionally, the psychological portrait of the main character was brightly described as well, and his mood of the play responds in social behaviors. There is no doubt that Wilson had made a colossal work writing this play as much as the series, but that exclusive play stands out of the frames because it is a genius work from a genius writer.