Tag Archives: African-American literature

Fences by August Wilson – POC reading challenge #1

19th April 2011

I don’t participate in many challenges because I am bad at them. It’s the commitment thing. BUT, I read about the Persons of Color reading challenge and decided I’d love to highlight some of my favorite works. Specifically, African-American literature is some of my favorite to read, and I usually read quite a bit of this specific fiction sub-section, so why not?

First up is Fences, a Pulitzer-winning play by August Wilson. August Wilson has fascinated me for years. I read in the Houston Chronicle several years ago about The Ensemble Theatre, a playhouse in the Heights neighborhood that started out featuring only the works of African-American playwrights in 1976. The article (sorry, can’t find it) highlighted another of Wilson’s works, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. I love Ma Rainey, the blues singer, but I promptly forgot about August Wilson. Then, three years ago, on adopting a textbook for my writing and literature class, I found Wilson’s play Fences.

I’m not a huge fan of reading plays; I’d rather see them performed. However, I read Fences at a rapid pace and was blown away. Fences is the 6th in a 10-play cycle called The Pittsburgh Cycle, and Wilson’s focus is to present the African-American experience by decade. It isn’t necessary to read them chronologically, though I understand some characters reappear in other plays.

Fences is set in the 1950s and has a mainly-male cast, headed by Troy, a resentful, disappointed garbage man, husband, and father who could have been a baseball star had he been born a decade or so later. After spending much of his adulthood in prison, he sets out to make a way for himself and his wife Rose, who constantly nags him about building a fence [insert symbolic interpretations here]. His two sons Cory and Lyons envision a new America and want to be part of it, but Troy is so inured by the past, he cannot see change on the horizon. He sees his job as a garbage man, and he isn’t allowed to be a driver simply because he’s black. He sees his past, wherein he didn’t have a shot at making a career out of being a ballplayer, and he takes it out on everyone around him. The tales of Jackie Robinson and others mean nothing to him: he didn’t make it, so no one else can either.

Troy is larger than life, and he talks about Death as a personality, someone out to get him, but whom he outsmarts again and again. Troy has so little control over his life, so he exerts it when and where he can – in his household, over his sons and wife. Yet Troy isn’t a character you hate. You understand his deep-seated anger and his motivations, all while wishing he would see how destructive he truly is.

The play is about so much: boundaries, as the title suggests, death, infidelity, the role of the masculine in African-American culture, but it’s also about how even justifiable anger can make us wrong about life and love. It’s a masterpiece, and I urge you to pick it up, or better yet – buy tickets if there is a showing near you.

Here’s a clip of Denzel Washington (he won a Tony Award for it, as did James Earl Jones. Unfortunately, couldn’t find a clip for him as it was in the 80s):