August Wilson’s Fences is a critically-acclaimed play from his series of works known as The Pittsburgh Cycle. It is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in the 1950s and emphasizes the struggles of a 1950s working-class household trying to find economic security. The Hill District, a working-class locality where African Americans lived, many who had journeyed there from the South. Wilson was known for his effort in bringing attention to the real-life societal prejudices brought against the African American community, and Fences was no exception. Fences is an accurate depiction of African American community that is based on real-life experiences from the life and times of August Wilson, references historical events, and illustrates the state of society in that time period.
Wilson used real-life experiences and conversations growing up in the Hill District to influence his characters and created protagonists that could’ve been any mann of that time, dealing with the moral and social issues of the day. Wilson recalled the importance of the cultural training he obtained growing up in his mother’s house in an interview, stating that:
“I learned the language, the eating habits, the religious beliefs, the gestures, the notions of common sense, attitudes towards sex, concepts of beauty and justice, and the responses to pleasure and pain… that my mother had learned from her mother, and which you could trace back to the first African who set foot on the continent. It is this culture that stands on these shores today as a testament to the resiliency of the African-American spirit” (Wilson 2001, 15-16).
As Sandra Shannon has suggested, Troy’s character appears to be based on Wilson’s stepfather, David Bedford, a talented black football player who, after failing to receive a much-hoped-for college scholarship, murdered a man during a robbery and spent over 20 years in prison (Dramatic Vision 91-92). But Troy is also said to be patterned after Josh Gibson, “the Babe Ruth of the Negro Leagues,” and the man to whom Troy himself uses as an example of someone who never had the chance to realize the American dream.
Fences makes references to several momentous events in history and ties them into the story further creating a historically accurate foundation. Set in 1957, just before the beginning of the civil rights movement, Fences takes place at a time when organized baseball has finally become integrated, but when racial discrimination remains widespread. Troy blames this segregation as the reason behind his failure to obtain the American dream.
“There ought not never have been no time called too early! . . .1 done seen a hundred niggers play baseball better than Jackie Robinson. Hell, I know some teams Jackie Robinson couldn’t even make! What you talking about Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson wasn’t nobody. I’m talking about if you could play ball then they ought to have let you play. Don’t care what color you were. Come telling me I come along too early. If you could play . . . then they ought to have let you play.” (9-10)
The protagonist’s words ring familiar and were based on those made by members of baseball’s Negro Leagues, a number of whom have shared their experiences. outfielder Cool Papa Bell, for example, is quoted as stating that while in the Negro Leagues, “the doors were not open, not only in baseball, but other avenues that we couldn’t enter. They say I was born too soon. I say the doors were opened up too late”.
Fences accurately depicts the state of the times as African Americans were finally coming into home ownership after failed Reconstruction and the Great Depression. Between 1940 and 1960, black homeownership jumped from 20 percent to 39 percent, nationwide, though it still lagged far behind white homeownership. Blacks migrated north to become urban citizens and found their way by hustling, fighting, stealing, and spending time in jail, much like Troy and Bono’s characters. Troy is one of those who have come into home ownership by using his brothers disability money to pay the morgatge.
Shannon, Sandra G. August Wilson’s Fences. ^ Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 2003.
Koprince, S. (2006). Baseball as History and Myth in August Wilson’s “Fences.” African American Review, 40(2), 349. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.postu.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h&AN=22940225&site=eds-live&scope=site
—. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Washington, DC: Howard UP, 1995.
Timpane, John. “Filling the Time: Reading History in the Drama of August Wilson.” May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson. Ed. Alan Nadel. Iowa City: U of Iowa, 1994. P 67-85.