Fences was first developed at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's 1983 National Playwrights Conference. It premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985.
The play's first Broadway production was staged at the 46th Street Theatre on March 26, 1987, and closed on June 26, 1988, after 525 performances and 11 previews. Directed by Lloyd Richards, the cast featured James Earl Jones (Troy Maxson), Mary Alice (Rose), Ray Aranha (Jim Bono), Frankie Faison (Gabriel), and Courtney B. Vance (Cory). The production won the Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play (James Earl Jones), Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play (Mary Alice), and Best Direction of a Play (Lloyd Richards), as well as the Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding New Play, Outstanding Actor in a Play (Jones), and Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play (Alice). It also received Tony Award nominations for Best Featured Actor in a Play (Faison and Vance).
The first Broadway revival of the play opened at the Cort Theatre on April 26, 2010, with a limited 13-week engagement. Directed by Kenny Leon, the production starred Denzel Washington (Troy Maxson) and Viola Davis (Rose) as the married couple struggling with changing U.S. race relations. The revival was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning three for Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor in a Play (Denzel Washington), and Best Actress in a Play (Viola Davis).
In 2013, the play was revived in the UK by Theatre Royal Bath, starring Lenny Henry as Troy Maxson and directed by Paulette Randall. This production transferred to the Duchess Theatre in London's West End for a run that lasted between June and September 2013. Henry's performance attracted wide acclaim. Giles Broadbent from the Wharf said, “Lenny Henry is immense.” Charles Spencer from The Telegraph said of Henry, "He is, and I don’t use the word lightly, magnificent." Jane Shilling, also from the Telegraph said: "What you don’t expect is to find Henry entirely unrecognisable in the physically and morally immense character he embodies." Best of Theatre said: "You may love or loathe his comedy but it is impossible to deny Lenny Henry’s determination to become a serious actor of some note." Paul Taylor from The Independent said, “the performance cements Henry's status as a serious actor.” Henry Hitchings from the London Evening Standard said, "He’s on superb form". Simon Edge from the Express said, "Henry gives a perfectly controlled performance, combining physical poise with an armoury of carefully judged vocal ticks and facial mannerisms." Of the production as a whole, Hitchings commented that "Fences is dense and unsettling. It’s brave to programme such a meaty, daunting piece during the summer months". Camilla Gurlter from A Younger Theatre described it as “very heavy and with its nearly three hours of lost hope and broken dreams it can feel long and depressing".