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Fences | Study Guide

August Wilson

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Fences | Context


Most of the action in Fences takes place in 1957, with the final scene fast forwarding to 1965. The struggles of Troy Maxson and his family and friends are in many ways representative of the racism and class struggles African Americans faced in post–World War II America.

Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball

America's pastime and its history of segregation shapes Fences's protagonist, Troy Maxson. From the days after the Civil War, African Americans and whites played professional baseball, together and separately. In 1890, however, a "gentleman's agreement" among team owners effectively barred African Americans from playing in the major leagues. The Negro National League was established in 1920 and featured some extraordinary talents, notably Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. Salaries, however, were generally less than those in Major League Baseball.

Then came Jackie Robinson. In 1946 the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey—determined to integrate baseball—searched for an African American player who would "have the guts not to fight back" against the racial slurs from players and fans. Robinson made, and held to, this agreement. After one year in the minor leagues, the second baseman joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the color barrier, eventually winning over his teammates and the fans. Robinson paved the way for other African American players and Hispanic players to follow in his footsteps.

Robinson is mentioned in Act I, Scene I of Fences. Rose says he broke the color line and "they got a lot of colored baseball players now." Troy is not convinced, and he doesn't think much of Robinson's talent. Robinson and his achievement, however, had already changed the sporting world by 1957, even if Troy doesn't see or acknowledge it.

Civil Rights Movement

A key issue in Fences is the generation gap between Troy and Cory. Troy is stuck in a past dominated by Jim Crow laws and segregation. As the child of a sharecropper, these bitter legacies of slavery shaped Troy's childhood and young adulthood. When Troy leaves his father's small plot of land for Pittsburgh, he has no education and no legitimate way to survive in the city. Once out of jail, Troy tries to make a living using the one skill he has—playing baseball. But this path is blocked, mainly because he comes out of jail a middle-aged man.

Troy's experience leaves him embittered and blinded to the changes around him. The action in the play begins in 1957, three years after Brown v. Board of Education led to the desegregation of public schools, and the same year Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, was forcibly integrated.

Troy is unable to see how these changes could make a life for his son that is very different from his own. Other characters in Fences see these changes and want to live their lives according to a new set of rules. August Wilson's setting the play in this period enhances Troy's internal conflict and his conflict with Cory.

The Pittsburgh Cycle

Fences is part of a 10-play cycle known as the Pittsburgh Cycle or the Century Cycle, in which Wilson addresses important issues African Americans faced between the 1900s and the 1990s. Fences represents the decade of the 1950s. Wilson set all but one of the plays in Pittsburgh, not just because he grew up there but also because he thought the city epitomized black America.

Wilson didn't write the plays in chronological order. The first in the cycle, Jitney (1982), is set in the 1970s. Jitneys were unlicensed cabs that operated in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where legal cabs would not go. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984), the second play written in the cycle, is the only one not based in Pittsburgh's Hill District, unfolding instead in 1920s Chicago. Fences, the third play written in the cycle, focuses on Pittsburgh in the 1950s.

The plays are not meant to be a serial, but they are unified by their themes: "My plays are ultimately about love, honor, duty, betrayal," said Wilson. They also feature recurring characters, settings, and motifs, such as blues and jazz.

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