Fences, written by August Wilson, is a powerful, deeply American play. But before I explain why you should immediately read the play yourself, I want to confess something – until recently, I had never heard of August Wilson. I consider myself a pretty well-read person, who is aware of plenty of authors and works I’ve never read. But sadly, Wilson, a distinguished poet and dramatist, wasn’t on my radar. Now, however, I’m looking forward to diving into his many works, including a ten-play series called The Pittsburg Cycle, each of which focuses on a different decade. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about the entire cycle once I get through it, but for now I want to focus on the play that deals with the 1950s, Fences, which as I said, is not only powerful, but deeply American.
I rarely talk about plays or author…or anything art-related, really…in terms of nationality. Sure, a culture might influence a text or be important to note, but it’s not often I think of a work as particularly American any more than I think of something as particularly French, or Spanish, etc. The reason is that, not being French or Spanish, I have no idea what constitutes what it means to be those nationalities. Perhaps those nationalities, and all others, have stories they tell about themselves, their own over-arching national-historical narratives. Perhaps none of them do. I don’t know, can’t know, and wouldn’t presume to know. But it’s impossible to grow up in America without hearing about one of its most fundamental narratives, “the American Dream,” that notion that if you work hard you’ll achieve your wildest dreams.
In 2017, it’s hard to talk about it with a straight face, unless you’re willing to ignore the staggering amount of evidence that success in America is determined by far more than grit and gumption. But while Fences has a lot to do with dreams, it’s important to stress that this isn’t simply a story of characters whose dreams are unfulfilled or who discover the American dream is a nightmare or a scam or anything so cynical/realistic (depending on your perspective). Rather, this is the story of a black family living in a not-to-distant past when the American Dream, which remains restricted to a privileged few today, was even more restrictive yet.
Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson, a garbage man who is both profoundly human and somehow also archetypal. He has his flaws – severe flaws, I’d say – but he has a code, as well, and if he doesn’t always live up to that code, he is self-aware enough to know it. Beneath the surface details of his struggles with his friends and family, though, is something more basic. That is, a man trying to find his place in the world, trying to grasp onto some scrap of dignity. As I said, he certainly falls short of his own professed ideals, but he has ideals, nonetheless, and his every line demonstrates that while he might not seem important in the grand scheme of things (if you were going to take a “great men/women of history” approach where you only count the actions of the greatest butchers…whoops, I mean conquers or rulers or insert-euphemism-here) and he may even be crude and brutal at times, he is still as complex and broad as any other human being.
Fences takes place in a small world, deeply influenced by the larger historical context of America in t he 1950s, and centers around characters who each struggle to reach for dreams, never mind fulfilling them. Yet again and again obstacles stand in their way, some put there by others who are bitter about their own dashed hopes or fearful of someone else ending up as bitter as they are. Dreams are a recurrent theme throughout the story, though the real drama, of course, centers on the hard- thankless work of getting through waking life.
Regardless of how you feel about Troy, or any of the other characters, at the end, I’m confident saying you won’t be able to fully condemn or praise them. That’s how it should be in a play about human beings. And if nothing else, Fences is about that. Human beings.
So go read it. Now.
(Meanwhile, I’m going to find more Wilson plays. It’s been a long, long time since I learned about a great new writer. And on that note, thank you to Tyler Sperrazza for indirectly revealing his existence to me)