August Wilson was one of the twentieth century’s greatest dramatists, and one of the foremost writers of the African-American experience that the world has seen. Almost every regional theatre in the country has done at least one production of an August Wilson play, and for good reason.
His Pittsburgh Cycle, which consists of ten plays most set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District and based in every decade of the twentieth century, focusing on different facets of the African American experience are some of the most powerful plays ever written. I love Wilson’s plays, my favorite being Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but that will not be the play I’ll be discussing in this post. Instead, I’ll talk about the one that is most well known: Fences.
Fences, which premiered in 1985, is the Pittsburgh Cycle play set in the 1950s and concerns itself with the life of Troy Maxson, a former Negro League baseball player who after a life of struggle has finally been promoted as a garbage truck driver, only to continue to find tensions at home among his wife, Rose, sons Cory and Lyons, and war injured brother Gabriel. The eponymous Fences refer to an actual fence being built throughout the play, as well as the various emotional and mental fences being constructed by Troy, Rose, and Cory.
There are a lot of things to love about Fences, and luckily for us all, there is a pretty great film adaptation that just came out by one of August Wilson’s biggest fans, Denzel Washington. Wilson adapted this screenplay before he passed away in 2005, and the movie’s strength relies on the script, Washington, and Viola Davis, who rightfully won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Rose Maxson. I could say a lot of things about Fences but instead I’ll just link you to this review by Dustin Rowles because it sums up my feelings quite well.
I think Fences, and Wilson’s work in general, is incredibly important to the current cultural conversation for a multitude of reasons. As we rightly look for more diversity in entertainment that is being presented, Wilson’s work stands out as theatrical works that are written by and for the African American experience that are consistently produced.
While we work to ensure that all voices are represented in media, Wilson engages with multiple types of tensions within his works, exploring as many different types of experiences as he can through his mastery of language and emotion.
HBO has said that they will produce film adaptations of all ten plays of the Pittsburgh Cycle, ensuring that a new generation will see Wilson’s words as the powerful tools that they are. Fences and Wilson’s work will continue to engage new audiences as more of his works are put on the screen, but while we wait, let us read his powerful words:
“Don’t try and go through life worrying about if somebody like you or not. You best be making sure they doing right by you.”