Fences

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Fences

August Wilson (b. 1945)

1985

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1. What is the symbolic role of fences in this play?

2. One of the motifs that links this play to many of the plays we've read this semester is the notion of the cyclical pattern of family, that is, the idea that the sins and virtues of one generation are played out again in the next. How powerful is this pattern, and is there any real hope to break free of it?

3. What is significant about the occupations or situations of the members of Troy's family in the final scene of the play?

4. To what extent is Troy wrong about how American society has changed during his lifetime? To what extent is he right?

5. How important is baseball as an element of Troy's past? (Check the links below for some interesting sites about the Negro Leagues.)

6. Troy talks a great deal about the important of independence and self-reliance, but he is also a user and manipulator of others. Does this make him a liar? self-deceptive? something else?

Fences

August Wilson (b. 1945)

1985

 

1. What are fences?

• Point out that fences both protect and contain -- they define territory and prevent mixture. A fence is integral to baseball; how else do we define a home run?

• Consider Rose's song at the outset of 1.2

• Gabriel's trip to Heaven (1.2) got him the horn to open the Pearly Gates

• A fence is also necessary for a penitentiary (1.4)

 

2. As Troy dominates the play, it seems appropriate to begin with a character description of him. Contrast the description of him offered in the initial stage directions with your first impressions of him in his conversation with Bono.

• What qualities or values does Troy seem to hold?

o loyalty (see p. 1507 & the A&P; compare p. 1511 -- Pope's story)

o hard work (Cory at the A&P @ 1507; learning a trade @ 1516)

o love (?) -- see esp. p. 1506; p. 1511; p. 1518

o responsiblity (argument with Cory over TV @ 1515-16)

• How important is the information we learn about Troy's past @ 1.4?

• How important is baseball to understanding Troy?

o Bono describes Troy's skill, and this becomes an argument about the racial barrier in the professional leagues @ 1507-08

o Troy argues with Cory about football @ 1516-17, and articulates his fear to Rose @ 1517-18

o We learn that Troy has forced Cory off the football team @ 1523.

 

3. Troy's history -- 1.4

• In what ways does he defend his father? for what does he condemn him?

• The description of coming to Philly (1522) reflects the contrast between European and black "immigrants" in "The Play" (author's note preceeding 1.1). How does this contrast illuminate Troy? Why doesn't he talk about it?

 

4. With this in mind, return to Troy's first confrontation with Cory @ 1.3, esp. Troy's response to Cory's "how come you ain't never liked me?"

• Contrast this with the final confrontation @ 2.4,; why does Troy kick Cory out?

 

5. Contrast Troy's handling of his responsibilities to Cory with his handling of his responsibilities to Rose.

• Begin with Troy's self-defense to Bono @ 2.1., and compare this with his explanation to Rose @ 2.1.

• How does this compare with Troy's handling of the news of Alberta's death @ 2.2?

 

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|[|African-Americans began to play baseball in the late 1800s on military teams, college teams, and company teams. They eventually found their way| |

|p|to professional teams with white players. Moses Fleetwood Walker and Bud Fowler were among the first to participate. However, racism and “Jim | |

|i|Crow” laws would force them from these teams by 1900. Thus, black players formed their own units, “barnstorming” around the country to play | |

|c|anyone who would challenge them. | |

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|[|In 1920, an organized league structure was formed under the guidance of Andrew “Rube” Foster—a former player, manager, and owner for the | |

|p|Chicago American Giants. In a meeting held at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City, Mo., Foster and a few other Midwestern team owners joined to form | |

|i|the Negro National League. Soon, rival leagues formed in Eastern and Southern states, bringing the thrills and innovative play of black | |

|c|baseball to major urban centers and rural country sides in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America. The Leagues maintained a high level of | |

|]|professional skill and became centerpieces for economic development in many black communities. | |

|[| | |

|p|In 1945, Major League Baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers recruited Jackie Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs. Robinson now becomes the first | |

|i|African-American in the modern era to play on a Major League roster. | |

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|]|While this historic event was a key moment in baseball and civil rights history, it prompted the decline of the Negro Leagues. The best black | |

|[|players were now recruited for the Major Leagues, and black fans followed. | |

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|i|The last Negro Leagues teams folded in the early 1960s, but their legacy lives on through the surviving players and the Negro Leagues Baseball | |

|c|Museum. | |

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|[pic] | |1945 |

| | |Playwright |

| | |Activist |

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• Born in Pittsburgh to a white father (Frederick August Kittle) who never lived with his family and a black mother (Daisy Wilson) from North Carolina. He shared life with his mother and five siblings.

• 1960s - Flunked out of the 9th grade and at worked menial jobs beginning at age 16. He received his education in libraries and in town hubs. Began writing plays in Pittsburgh and then took a job in St. Paul writing dramatic skits for the Science Museum of Minnesota.

• 1960s - 1970s - Became involved in the civil rights movement and began to describe himself as black nationalist.

• Moved to Minneapolis and began to write clearly using speech patterns and rhythms that were familiar to him from black neighborhoods of Pittsburgh. his writing was also strongly influenced by the blues.

• 1968 - Founded and directed the Black Horizon Theatre Company in Pittsburgh in a predominantly black neighborhood referred to as the Hill. In 1972 he began writing a play, Jitney, about a Gypsy cab station, which was produced in 1978 at Black Horizon and in 1982 at the Eugene O'Neill Center's National Playwright Conference. The play was revived and presented at the 1997 National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

• Founded the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis Shortly after he wrote Fullerton Street which was not as well received as Jitney.

• His first commercial success was Ma Rainey's Black Bottom which was developed at the Playwrights Center in 1983 and eventually moved to premier at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1984 and went on to Broadway where it enjoyed 275 performances and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. The premier at the Yale Repertory established a collaborative bond between Wilson and Lloyd Richards who was then dean of the Yale School of Drama.

• Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was the first in a cycle of ten plays designed to represent the African American people's existence in the United States during this century. Each play dealt with a particular decade as illustrated in Ma Rainey's which represented a female blues singer who deals with the pressures of an abusive music business which victimized its black artists. The play was set in a movie studio and the character of Levee was played by Charles Dutton of television's Roc fame.

• Fences presents a slice-of-life in a black tenement in (Pittsburgh?) set in the late 1950s through 1965. The main character, Troy Maxson, is a garbage collector who has taken great pride in keeping his family together and providing for them. Troy's rebellion and frustration set the tone for the play as he struggles for fairness in a society which seems to offer none. In his struggle he builds fences between himself and family. Troy also wrestles with the idea of death and claims that he sees death as nothing but a fastball, something he can handle. The baseball metaphor is used in relation to death and throughout the play.

• Joe Turner's Come and Gone opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre in late 1986 and moved to New York in early 1988. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. In this play and others, Wilson makes a special effort to highlight the elements of African heritage that white society strips away from African Americans. The story revolves around Harold Loomis who returns to a boarding house in Pittsburgh in search of his wife. He is haunted by the memory of a bounty hunter, Joe Turner, who had illegally enslaved him. Set in 1917, Harold is unable to embrace his past by participating in the Juba dance related to Africa.

• Two Trains Running opened in 1992 and starred Laurence Fishburne (What's Love Got to Do With It) and Cynthia Martells (Roc ). Set in a Pittsburgh eatery, Risa, a wary waitress has scarred her legs to keep men away and to force people to look at her deeper. It had limited critical success.

• Wilson currently resides in Seattle, Washington where he put the finishing touches on his latest play in the cycle, "Moon Going Down." It opened as his newest drama, Seven Guitars , at the Goodman Theatre, Chicago in January and February 1995. The play has since moved to Broadway with a successful run. Set in Pittsburgh, its about the blues and how they mean different things to blacks and to whites. In it, several blues musicians plan a move to Chicago. The play has since moved to a successful run on Broadway.

• He is well on his way to completing a cycle of ten plays depicting the African American experience in this country during the twentieth century (one for each decade). He believes that African Americans need not assimilate into the dominant culture, but to contribute to that society to make it represent African Americans.

• August Wilson's latest drama, KING HEDLEY II opens at the Virginia Theatre on Broadway in April 2001, and it stars Tony award-winner Brian Stokes-Mitchell and Leslie Uggams

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FENCES

• Opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985 and in New York in 1987 where it won the Pulitzer Prize as well as the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. The play was directed, as usual, by Lloyd Richards who also ran the Yale Repertory Theatre.

• Fences presents a slice-of-life in a black tenement in (Pittsburgh?) set in the late 1950s through 1965. The main character, Troy Maxson, is a garbage collector who has taken great pride in keeping his family together and providing for them. Troy's rebellion and frustration set the tone for the play as he struggles for fairness in a society which seems to offer none.

• Note the realistic and metaphorical use of the fence in the play. Troy and Cory are building a realistic fence around the house, and Troy is building metaphorical fences between himself and virtually everyone else in the play.

• Troy wrestles with the idea of death and claims that he sees death as nothing but a fastball, something he can handle. The baseball metaphor is used in relation to death and throughout the play. His frustration with his baseball career in the Negro Leagues affects his relationship with his son, Cory.

• The father and son relationship between Troy and Cory is explored as a central part of the drama. Their relationship becomes complicated by strong feelings of pride and independence on both sides.

• Troy is not a flawless protagonist in that his relationship with his wife, Rose, is challenged at every turn. Eventually his sexual infidelity and a subsequent child by another woman (which Rose cares for), the marriage is effectively destroyed.

• Among the ironies in the play, Troy argued for blacks to drive the garbage trucks, but he doesn't know how to drive or have a license.

• According to Wilson, "One question in the play is ` Are the tools we are given sufficient to compete in a world that is different from the one our parent's knew?' I think they are--it's just that we have to do different things with the tools."

• By the end of Fences , every character except Raynell is institutionalized--Rose in the church, Lyons in the penitentiary, Gabriel in the mental hospital, and Cory in the U.S. Marines. the only free person is the girl, Troy's daughter, the hope of the future.

• When asked about television versus theatre's presentation of African American life, Wilson believes that though the Cosby Show was highly successful, it does not accurately reflect African American life.

• Fences is both unique to the plight of African Americans and universal in its depiction of the human condition. The father-son and husband-wife relationships cross both unique and universal boundaries.

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In discussing African American heritage, Wilson commented, "As African Americans, we should demand to participate in society as Africans. That's the way out of the vicious cycle of poverty and neglect that exists in 1987 America, where you have a huge percentage of blacks living in the equivalent of South Africa townships, in housing projects...I think the process of assimilation to white American society was a big mistake."

- August Wilson -

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

-----. Contemporary Literary Criticism , Vol. 63. (p. 447.)

Greenberg, James. "Did Hollywood Sit on 'Fences'?" New York Times . (Jan. 27, 1991)

Rich, Frank. "A Family Confronts Its History in August Wilson's 'Piano Lesson.'" The New York Times, (April 17, 1990).

Simon, John. "Two Trains Running." New York Times , (April 27, 1992.)

Stearns, David Patrick. "'The Piano Lesson,' Heavy on Drills." USA Today, (April 17, 1990).

Vaughn, Peter. "A Three-Year Break From Writing, Wilson Ready to Finish 'Seven Guitars.'" Minneapolis Star and Tribune (April 30, 1993).

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