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April 7, 2022

The Lasting Legacy of August Wilson’s Fences


August Wilson began writing Fences (US/UK) in 1982, immediately fol­lowing his work on the development of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (US/UK) at the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference. Wilson’s experi­ence with Ma Rainey was very positive; it was scheduled for pro­duction at the Yale Repertory Theatre and there was talk of Broadway. But Wilson feared being a one-play playwright. And so, on the bus heading home from the Conference, Wilson wrote the first scene of Fences.

Fences focuses on the family of Troy Maxson. Born in poverty in the South, Troy fought hard throughout his life. He fought to use his talent for baseball to earn his living and was pushed back by the white establishment. He fought the pressures of the street but, nonetheless, landed in prison. Now, in his mid­dle years, Troy is fighting to uphold the lessons of responsibility he has learned and striving for balance with his family. But the challenges of his racist world are driving him in conflicting directions. The more he struggles to stand upright, the more he stumbles.

Wilson’s work on Fences was partially a response to com­mercial pressures. While his previous play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, achieved great critical and box office success, the play was criticized by conservative critics for its non-traditional structure and its bifurcated focus.  Wilson reacted to the criticism as a di­rect challenge and strove to write a play with a conventional narrative and one dominant central character.

Wilson drew inspiration from his own life, and Troy bears some resemblance to Wilson’s stepfather, David Bedford. Disappointment in sports, a serious brush with crime, and time in prison were followed by years of righting past wrongs. While Fences is not autobiographical, Wilson’s life does pro­vide a cultural context in which he explores themes close to his heart. “White America pays no attention to the Troy Maxsons in this world. They see Black people as lazy and shiftless. Well, Troy is a man who is trying to fulfill tremendous responsibility.”[1]

Wilson started writing Fences with the image of a man standing in his yard with a baby in his arms, an homage to the painter Romare Bearden. Of Wilson’s four influential “B’s,” – the Blues, Jorge Luis Borges, the Black Power Movement included – Bearden has had the most direct impact on Wilson’s work. That image of the man and baby is the center of Bearden’s collage, Continuities. The expansion of that single image, and early writings on a bus ride, were followed by many drafts of the play.

From the play’s inception, and continuing through its devel­op­ment, Wilson pursued his goal to make Fences a more traditional play than those which he had previously written. Of all Wilson’s plays, Fences most closely follows historical western views of tragic form and was his greatest commer­cial theatrical success.  Runs at regional theaters throughout the country sold out, and the Broadway production grossed eleven million dollars in one year.

Throughout Fences, Wilson explored the balance and conflict between the characters’ responsibility both to those around them and to them­selves. At the heart of play is the juxtaposition of the decisions Troy makes regarding his family and the choice Troy makes to have an affair. Although Wilson exposes the destructive nature of this betrayal, he carefully guides us to understanding his disillusionment and the reasons that guide his actions in the play.

Troy, along with many men in Wilson’s canon, make such choices in the shadow of ongoing oppression. These men feed their families but also their sense of justice – sometimes through illegal or damaging choices. Wilson did not judge these men negatively but rather saw them as warriors; he noted in an interview with Bill Moyers that he respected those “who look around to see what the society has cut out for them, who see the limits of their participation, and are willing to say, ‘No I refuse to accept this limitation that you are imposing on me…’”[2]

As a young man, Troy pursued what he be­lieved to be his personal destiny at great cost to himself and those around him; Troy’s inability to make a life in major league baseball that made no space for Black men led to the loss of a first mar­riage and then to prison. Later in life, he settles down and marries Rose in an effort to make peace with his circumstances. But injustice and inequality continue to wear away his sense of manhood, and small victories – being the first Black driver of a garbage truck – cannot sustain him. Life does not provide sufficient validation, nor sufficient fuel for survival. Troy tells his wife, Rose:

I saw that girl…she firmed up my backbone. And I got to thinking that if I tried…I just might be able to steal second. Do you understand after eighteen years [of marriage] I wanted to steal second?

But Rose remains a powerful spokesperson for the maintenance of re­spon­sibility:

I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot with you. Don’t you think I ever wanted things? Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes…Don’t you think it ever crossed my mind to want to know other men? That I wanted to lay up somewhere and forget about my responsibilities…But I held on to you, Troy…I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams…and I buried them inside you…I held on to you, Troy.

In response, Troy tells his friend Bono, “I ain’t ducking the responsibility of it. As long as it sets right in my heart…then I’m okay. Cause that’s all I listen to. It’ll tell me right from wrong every time.” Despite everything that Troy preaches to all the other characters in the play, ultimately he decides his responsibility to himself outweighs his responsibility to them.

The audience’s ability to understand the complexity of the conflicts within the characters is central to the effectiveness of the play. Many of the characters in Fences, like those in our lives, make what seem to be irresponsible choices. Wilson’s goal was to examine such choices by revealing the pressures which influence a decision. To look into a life is to un­cover nobility and dignity and, ultimately, to see not the contravention, but the contribution of an individual.

For Wilson, Troy Maxson is exemplary of Blacks who had come north, a transplant which Wilson felt “did not take”:

We left the South. We uprooted ourselves and attempted to transplant this culture to the pavements of the industrialized North. And it was a transplant that did not take. I think if we had stayed in the South, we would have been a stronger people.  In all my plays, I always point toward making that connection, toward reconnecting with the past. You have to know who you are, and understand your history in America over more than 300 years, in order to know what your relation is to your society.[3]

Looking out over history, August Wilson bemoaned the great migration north to a place where Blacks were never equal. The resulting oppression, exploitation and pressure to assimilate are found in all of his plays as the characters struggle to reconcile past and present. Wilson’s characters face all the trappings of contemporary white-dominated society – falsely golden representatives of economic possibility, semblance of acceptance, the lure of false equality.  And in a call to seek a better path, Wilson juxtaposed these temptations with traditional elements of African culture. Griots, ritual and sacrifice weave through all the American Century Cycle, as characters move closer and further from their cultural past. Disconnected, Wilson’s characters are struggling to find their place in the world. Throughout this century, Wilson saw Blacks whose ties to the greater community – a source of strength required for survival – had been severed; his plays examine this separation and advocate for a crucial reconnection in a passionate call for self-definition.

Throughout his work, Wilson returns again and again to his clear mandate to reconnect to the past and to find personal strength therein. His characters invoke the ghosts of the middle passage and recall the trauma of their enslaved ancestors. Weaving throughout the plays is Aunt Ester, who holds the potential for spiritual renewal through connection to the past. For Wilson, she is the most significant persona in the entire cycle. Born in 1619, Aunt Ester’s life has spanned the presence of the African people on western soil. She preaches self-knowledge, personal responsibility and acknowledgment of where you have come from. In Two Trains Running, Memphis comments, “Aunt Ester says, ‘If you drop the ball, you got to go back and pick it up. Ain’t no need in keeping running, cause if you get to the end zone it ain’t gonna be a touchdown.’”

Aunt Ester holds the memory of all Africans, carried against their will to this place. She embodies the wisdom and traditions that have been left behind. Ester’s deep presence, ironically in spite of her physical absence in all but one play in the Cycle (Gem of the Ocean), calls to the fore African culture and forces its integration into a world where it does not exist in sufficient force to ultimately ensure her survival. Perhaps, as the characters in King Hedley II conjecture, in the play where her death is marked, Aunt Ester died of grief – certainly a possibility as she surveyed a landscape in which she had no place. As the character Stool Pigeon describes, “The people wandering all over the place. They got lost. They don’t even know the story of how they got from tit to tat. Aunt Ester know but the path to her house is all grown over with weeds, can’t hardly find the door no more.”

Today the path is in danger of purposeful erasure. The New York Times reported that, “since January 2021, according to a list compiled by Education Week, 37 states have introduced measures to limit how race and discrimination can be taught in public school classrooms, and 14 have imposed laws or rules to enforce these restrictions.” [4]

There is, thus, no doubt of the contemporary relevance and import of August Wilson’s plays; his call to know and accept the past, to find in it the strength to go forward, resonates beyond measure.  As we face a frightening landscape in which the teaching of history is limited to the stories that belong to only some of our students, art that captures and shares the truths of Black lives is a necessity; it is a life force vital to the contemporary struggle.

August Wilson continually pursued James Baldwin’s call for “a profound articulation of the Black tra­dition” – for Wilson “that field of manners and ritual of intercourse that will sustain a man once he’s left his father’s house.” His plays are a vital encapsula­tion of Black history and contemporary life. They are chroni­cles of men and women whose constant upheaval has left them searching. They are quests for historical and spiritual truths among a people who have been continually uprooted.

Wilson’s final two plays were the first and last in the cycle.  Although this was not an intentional choice, in so doing, Wilson created a circle. It is a continuum in which all life – ancestral, the living, and the unborn – simultaneously exist. At the center of this world, as Aunt Ester notes in Gem of the Ocean, is the city of bones. It is the core from which all strength is drawn. It is living history and August Wilson reminds us of the glory of its embrace.  In his time, ahead of his time, for all time, August Wilson shares history we cannot allow to disappear.  Fences, and the entire American Century Cycle, must remain on our stages.


[1] August Wilson, interview conducted by the author, February, 1994.

[2] Moyers, Bill.  “August Wilson.”  A World of Ideas:  Conversations with Thoughtful Men and Women about American Life Today and Ideas Shaping our Future.  Ed. Betty Sue Flowers.  NY:  Doubleday, 1989.

[3] Rothstein, Mervyn.  “Round Five for a Theatrical Heavyweight,” New York Times, April 15, 1990, A&L: 1.

[4] Forten and Hayward, Teachers Tackle Black History Month, Under New Restrictions, NY Times, February 13, 2022.

Dr. Joan Herrington is the author of several books, which are available on Amazon. Check out her books: August Wilson’s Playwriting Process, August Wilson in an Hour, Playwrights Teach Playwriting, Playwrights Teach Playwriting 2, and The Playwright’s Muse (Studies in Modern Drama).

Learn more about August Wilson’s Fences from Concord Theatricals in the US or UK.