Fences Study Guide

Fences was written by August Wilson in 1983 and first performed at the 46th Street Theatre on Broadway in 1987. Fences is the sixth play in Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle." The Cycle is a series of plays set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania over the ten decades of the 20th century. Fences is set in the 1950's and deals with issues of race relations and the changing broader culture of the United States.

The play was both a critical and commercial success. During its initial run on Broadway, it brought in an astounding $11 million in its first year of production, a record for a non-musical play. It won four Tony Awards, including Best Play; several Critic's awards; and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Beyond its commercial and critical success, however, Wilson's play is perhaps most notable for its impact on popular theater. Fences, along with Wilson's other most successful play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, proved that the theatrical tastes of the country were shifting from an appetite for popular musicals and comedies to an acceptance of serious theater dealing with the cultural, racial, and social issues of the day.

The play's impact reached beyond the theater and into the academic and artistic conversations of the late twentieth century. It has been deemed a "generational play" by critics and academics for its depiction of three generations of African-American men -- Troy Maxson, Troy's father, and Troy's son. It depicts an archetypal struggle between fathers and sons, themes that have proved pertinent across racial and generational divides. The play has even premiered in numerous foreign countries (including China), demonstrating its thematic power across cultures.

Fences is unique among Wilson's plays in that it adheres more strictly to the classical tragedy structure than his other works. Wilson often objected to such structure in his plays, yet Fences ultimately embraces the orderly flow of beginning, rising action, climax, and falling action. Wilson's play also features a clear protagonist, Troy Maxson, with whom the audience can identify, suffer, and become redeemed.

Though written in the 1980's, the play deals with African-American life in the post-World War II era. Troy is a product of this time, continually caught between the African-American oppression of his Southern childhood and his Northern adopted home, and his changing world - a world in which African-Americans were joining the middle class, securing better jobs, and seeing their children gain opportunities, such as college and sports careers, that previous generations never had. Troy represents an entire generation, unsatisfied with the legacy of racism that they bore and uncomfortable in their slow social ascent.

In a testament to its enduring universal themes, Fences was revived on Broadway in 2010, with Denzel Washington in the lead. Again, the play was nominated for multiple Tony Awards, winning Best Actor for Washington, Best Actress for Viola Davis in the part of Rose, and Best Revival. Fences also remains one of the most assigned theatrical texts to students in the United States, ensuring that it will continue to be the subject of academic debate for generations to come.