Fences is a 1985 play by American playwright August Wilson. Set in the 1950s, it is the sixth in Wilson’s ten-part “Pittsburgh Cycle”. Like all of the “Pittsburgh” plays, Fences explores the evolving African-American experience and examines race relations, among other themes. The play won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play. The play was first developed at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s 1983 National Playwrights Conference and premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985.
The focus of Wilson’s attention in Fences is Troy, a 53-year-old head of household who struggles with providing for his family. The play takes place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; although never officially named it makes mention of several key locations in Pittsburgh. Troy was an excellent player in Negro league baseball in his younger days and continued practicing while in prison for an accidental murder he had committed during a robbery. Because the color barrier had not yet been broken in Major League Baseball, Troy was unable to get into that league to make good money or to save for the future. He now lives a menial, though respectable life of trash collecting; later in the play, he remarkably crosses the race barrier and becomes the first black truck driver instead of just a barrel lifter.
Troy lives with his wife, Rose, his son, Cory, and his younger brother Gabriel, an ex-soldier whose war injury to his head has caused him noticeable psychological damage. Gabe had received $3000 from the government, and Troy took this money to purchase a home for his family, including a room for Gabe. A short time before the play’s opening, Gabriel has rented a room elsewhere, but still in the neighborhood. Lyons is Troy’s son from a previous marriage, and lives outside the home. Bono is Troy’s best friend and co-worker.
The play begins on payday, with Troy and Bono drinking and talking. Troy’s character is revealed through his speech about how he went up to their boss, Mr. Rand, and asked why black men are not allowed to drive garbage trucks; Rose and Lyons join in the conversation. Lyons, a musician, has come to borrow money from Troy, confident that he will receive it, and promises to pay him back because his girlfriend Bonnie just got a job. Troy, who is a rigid believer in responsibility, belittles his son because he refuses to find a real job as Troy did rather than pursuing his dream of becoming a musician.
Cory tells Troy and Rose about an opportunity for a college football scholarship. Troy tells Cory he will not let his son play football for fear of racial discrimination, just as Troy believes he experienced when he wanted a career in the National leagues. (However, one line later suggests that Troy’s age after serving a prison sentence, not his race, may have been the primary factor.) Father and son argue about Troy’s actions, but Troy stubbornly does not back down from his argument and sends Cory to his room. Later on, it is discovered that Troy told Cory’s coach that his son is no longer to play football. When Cory discovers of this, he and Troy get into a fight resulting in Troy’s kicking Cory out of his house. Later, it is revealed that Cory enlisted in the military after this event.
Troy admits to Rose that he has been having an affair and that his mistress, Alberta, is pregnant. Later, Alberta dies in childbirth. Troy brings his baby daughter Raynell home, and Rose agrees to raise the girl as her own. She remains in the family home but the couple are estranged; she refuses to accept Troy back into her life.
Seven years later, Troy has died. Cory comes home for a visit from the military where he is a corporal in the Marines. He initially refuses to go to his father’s funeral due to long-standing resentment, but he is convinced by his mother to pay his respects to his father — the man who, though hard-headed and often poor at demonstrating affection, nevertheless loved his son. The family say their farewells to Troy and offer forgiveness that may not be fully deserved.
The fence referred to by the play’s title is built over many years and is revealed to be finished only in the final act of the play. It is not obvious as to why Troy wants to build it, but a dramatic monologue in the second act shows how he conceptualizes it as an allegory — to keep the Grim Reaper away. The fence is also symbolic of the emotional barrier that Troy erected between himself and his sons, one from each of his adult relationships. Rose also wanted Troy to build the fence as a symbolic means of securing what was her own, keeping what belonged inside in (her family), and making what should stay outside, stay out.
Fences was first developed at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s 1983 National Playwrights Conference. It premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985.
The play’s first Broadway production was staged at the 46th Street Theatre on March 26, 1987, and closed on June 26, 1988, after 525 performances and 11 previews. Directed by Lloyd Richards, the cast featured James Earl Jones (Troy Maxson), Mary Alice (Rose), Ray Aranha (Jim Bono), Frankie Faison (Gabriel), and Courtney B. Vance (Cory). The production won the Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play (James Earl Jones), Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play (Mary Alice), and Best Direction of a Play (Lloyd Richards), as well as the Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding New Play, Outstanding Actor in a Play (Jones), and Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play (Alice). It also received Tony Award nominations for Best Featured Actor in a Play (Faison and Vance).
The first Broadway revival of the play opened at the Cort Theatre on April 26, 2010, with a limited 13-week engagement. Directed by Kenny Leon, the production starred Denzel Washington (Troy Maxson) and Viola Davis (Rose) as the married couple struggling with changing U.S. race relations. The revival was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning three for Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor in a Play (Denzel Washington), and Best Actress in a Play (Viola Davis).
In 2013, the play was revived in the UK by Theatre Royal Bath, starring Lenny Henry as Troy Maxson and directed by Paulette Randall. This production transferred to the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End for a run that lasted between June and September 2013. Henry’s performance attracted wide acclaim. Giles Broadbent from the Wharf said, “Lenny Henry is immense.” Charles Spencer from The Telegraph said of Henry, “He is, and I don’t use the word lightly, magnificent.” Jane Shilling, also from the Telegraph said: “What you don’t expect is to find Henry entirely unrecognisable in the physically and morally immense character he embodies.” Best of Theatre said: “You may love or loathe his comedy but it is impossible to deny Lenny Henry’s determination to become a serious actor of some note.” Paul Taylor from The Independent said, “the performance cements Henry’s status as a serious actor.” Henry Hitchings from the London Evening Standard said, “He’s on superb form”. Simon Edge from the Express said, “Henry gives a perfectly controlled performance, combining physical poise with an armoury of carefully judged vocal ticks and facial mannerisms.” Of the production as a whole, Hitchings commented that “Fences is dense and unsettling. It’s brave to programme such a meaty, daunting piece during the summer months”. Camilla Gurlter from A Younger Theatre described it as “very heavy and with its nearly three hours of lost hope and broken dreams it can feel long and depressing”.
James Earl Jones – Troy Maxson
Mary Alice – Rose / Troy’s wife
Ray Aranha – Jim Bono / Troy’s friend
Charles Brown – Lyons / Troy’s oldest son by a previous marriage
Frankie R. Faison – Gabriel / Troy’s brother
Karima Miller – Raynell / Troy’s daughter
Courtney B. Vance – Corey / Troy and Rose’s son
Understudies: Tatyana Ali (Raynell), Ethel Ayler (Rose), Mike Hodge (Gabriel, Jim Bono), Gilbert Lewis (Troy Maxson), Byron Keith Minns (Corey) and Vince Williams (Lyons)
Denzel Washington – Troy Maxson
Viola Davis – Rose / Troy’s wife
Chris Chalk – Corey / Troy and Rose’s son
SaCha Stewart-Coleman / Raynell / Troy’s daughter / Alternate
Eden Duncan-Smith – Raynell / Troy’s daughter / Alternate
Stephen McKinley Henderson – Jim Bono / Troy’s friend
Russell Hornsby – Lyons / Troy’s oldest son by a previous marriage
Mykelti Williamson – Gabriel / Troy’s brother
Standby: Jason Dirden (Corey, Lyons), Michael Genet (Gabriel, Jim Bono), Roslyn Ruff (Rose) and Keith Randolph Smith (Troy Maxson)
Awards and Nominations
- Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play (1987)
- Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1987)
- Tony Award for Best Play (1987)
- Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Play (2010)
- Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play (2010)
A film adaptation of Fences, directed by Denzel Washington, and starring Washington and Viola Davis reprising their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival, completed production in 2016. The film was released nationally on 25 December 2016 in the US and is set for release on 3 February 2017 in the UK. The movie was chosen by the American Film Institute as one of the top ten films of 2016, and has been nominated for numerous awards, including four Oscar nominations at the 89th Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Washington), Best Supporting Actress (Davis), and Best Adapted Screenplay, with Davis winning for her performance. It also received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor for Washington and a Best Supporting Actress win for Davis.
- ^ Gans, Andrew, and Kenneth Jones, “‘Fences’, with Academy Award Winner Denzel Washington, Opens on Broadway”, playbill.com, April 26, 2010.
- ^ “Tony Award nominations”, abcnews.go.com,
- ^ Gans, Andrew and Jones, Kenneth.”2010 Tony Nominations Announced; Fela! and La Cage Top List” Archived May 6, 2010, at the Wayback Machine., playbill.com, May 4, 2010.
- ^ “Winners List – All Categories”, tonyawards.com, June 13, 2010.
- ^ “Henry Builds Fences in London”, Official London Theatre.
- ^ Broadbent, Giles (July 1, 2013). “Stage review: Fences, Duchess Theatre”, The Wharf, accessed September 28, 2014.
- ^ Spencer, Charles (February 28, 2013). “Fences, Theatre Royal, Bath, review”. The Daily Telegraph. London.
- ^ Shilling, Jane (June 27, 2013). “Fences, Duchess Theatre, review”. The Daily Telegraph. London.
- ^ Mitford, Oliver (June 25, 2013). “Fences Review”, Best of Theatre, accessed September 28, 2014.
- ^ Taylor, Paul (June 27, 2013). “Theatre review: Fences – Lenny Henry’s towering performance further proves his status as a serious actor”. The Independent. London.
- ^ a b Hitchings, Henry (June 27, 2013). “Fences, Duchess Theatre – theatre review”, London Evening Standard, accessed September 28, 2014.
- ^ Edge, Simon (June 28, 2013). “Theatre review: Fences”, Express, accessed September 28, 2014.
- ^ Gurlter, Camilla (June 29, 2013). “Review: Fences”, A Younger Theatre, accessed June 28, 2014.
- ^ Viagas, Robert (April 22, 2016). “Denzel Washington’s Fences Film Begins Shooting Today”. Playbill. Retrieved April 25, 2016.
- ^ Hipes, Patrick (December 8, 2016). “AFI Awards: Best Of 2016 Film List Includes ‘Silence’, ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ & More”. Deadline.com. Retrieved December 8, 2016.
- ^ “Golden Globes 2017: The Complete List of Nominations”. The Hollywood Reporter. December 12, 2016. Retrieved December 12, 2016.
- Wilson, August (1986). Fences: A Play (First ed.). New York: Plume. ISBN 0-452-26401-4.
- Vecsey, George (May 10, 1987). “Sports of the Times; Ray Dandridge, The Hall of Fame and ‘Fences'”. New York Times. Retrieved June 15, 2009.
- Napierkowski, Marie Rose (ed.) (January 2006) . “Fences”. Drama for Students. vol. 3. Detroit: Gale; eNotes.com. Retrieved June 26, 2008.