by Sabrina KhanFences, by August Wilson, is a 1983 play that reflects the African American struggle for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — rights owed to every US citizen — during the Civil Rights Movement era. Set in 1957 through 1965 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the play explores complex themes of family conflicts and relationships, unwavering friendship during trying times, and integration among blacks and whites.
The play portrays the reality of the Black experience in the US in the midst and wake of Jim Crow laws. One such way the play alludes to historical context to serve as the foundation of the story is through the family name “Maxson,” a play on the words Mason and Dixon, from the Mason Dixon line, which was an imaginary border that separated the slave states from the free in 1820. It conveys the connection Troy bears between the unjust South he had leaves early on to become an urban citizen and the North that serves him little better.
Late playwright August Wilson, a prolific and influential writer to this day, told such a story by weaving together the threads that were the conditions of his own life. Wilson was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1945 and was raised in an environment where he became intimately familiar with poverty and racial discrimination. A remarkably intelligent individual, Wilson felt his academic curriculum was not challenging enough and he often encountered prejudice in school. He educated himself in the local library, immersing himself in great works, and wrote poetry and short stories. Though Wilson wanted to be a writer, he and his mother were at odds because she wanted him to be a lawyer, and so he was compelled to leave home. He then enlisted in the US Army in 1962 for a year and returned to working odd jobs afterward.
In the 1960s, Wilson established himself as a playwright through the Yale School of Drama where the Dean of the Drama School, Lloyd Richards, saw extreme potential in him. Wilson and Richards collaborated on Broadway, and Wilson created the first of many works thereafter, Black Cart and the Sacred Hills. Fences soon followed, along with Joe Turner's Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson and more. Fences and The Piano Lesson both won Pulitzer Prizes for Drama in 1987 and 1990 respectively.
Fences opened in 1987 to great critical acclaim, and earned many Tony Awards, including Best Play. Since then, an entirely new cast has taken the responsibility to show another generation the still extremely relevant and poignant the story of Fences.