August Wilson was named Frederick August Kittel when he was born to a German father and an African American mother in 1945. Wilson was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. His father drifted in an out of his family. His mother and a stepfather, David Bedford, mostly raised Wilson. When Wilson was sixteen, he was accused of plagiarism at school when he wrote a sophisticated paper that the administration did not believe he could write. When Wilson's principal would not recognize the validity of Wilson's work, she suspended him and later ignored his attempts to come back to school. Wilson soon dropped out and educated himself at the local library, reading everything he could find. In the 1960's, Wilson steeped himself in the black power movement while he worked on his poetry and short stories. Eventually, in the sixties, Wilson reinvented himself as a playwright. His work was nurtured through institutions like the Yale School of Drama, where the Dean of the Drama School at the time, theatre director Lloyd Richards, recognized Wilson's talent. Richards later collaborated with Wilson in New York on Broadway. Fences was Wilson's second play to go to Broadway and won him the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama again in 1990 for his play The Piano Lesson.
Wilson has taken upon himself the responsibility to write a play about black experiences in the United States for every decade of the 20th century. Only two decades remain, the first years of the century and the 1990's. Fences is his play about blacks in the 1950's. Beginning in 1957, between the Korean and Vietnam wars, Fences ends in 1965, but the themes of the play directly place its consciousness in a pre-civil-rights-movement, pre-Vietnam-war-era psyche. Fences takes place in a still latent time. Like the popular Sam Cooke song of the day proclaims, "A Change is Gonna Come," but not quite yet.
In Fences as in Wilson's other plays, a tragic character helps pave the way for other blacks to have opportunities under conditions they were never free to experience, but never reap from their own sacrifice and talents themselves. This is Troy Maxson's situation. Troy's last name, "Maxson," is a compressed reference to the Mason-Dixon line, considered as the imaginary line originally conceived of in 1820 to define the separation between the slave states and the free states. Maxson represents an amalgamation of Troy's history in the south and present life in the north that are inextricably linked.
Wilson purposefully sets the play during the season Hank Aaron led the Milwaukee Braves to the World Series, beating the New York Giants. When Fences takes place, blacks like Aaron proved they could not only compete with white ballplayers, but that they would be leaders in the professional league. Since we can look back on history with 20/20 hindsight, Wilson asks his audience to put together what they know of American history with the way his various characters experience and perceive history through their own, often conflicted eyes.
All of Wilson's plays take place in his hometown of Pittsburgh, and Fences is no exception. The Pittsburgh of the Maxson family is a town where Troy and other men of his generation fled from the savage conditions of sharecropping in the south. After Reconstruction failed, many blacks walked north as far as they could go to become urban citizens. Having no resources or infrastructure to depend on, men like Bono and Troy found their way in the world by spending years living in shacks, stealing, and in jail. Wilson clearly draws a linear link between the release of the slaves to the disproportionate number of black men in our jails and in low-income occupations by arguing that the majority of a homeless, resource-less group let loose into a competitive and financed society will have a hard time surviving lawfully. Wilson's characters testify to the fact that the United States failed blacks after Lincoln abolished slavery and that the government's failure, made effective legally through Jim Crow laws and other lawful measures to ensure inequality, continues to effect many black lives. Wilson portrays the 1950s as a time when a new world of opportunity for blacks began to open up, leaving those like Troy, who grew up in the first half of the century, to feel like a stranger in their own land.
Take a Study Break!