August Wilson's 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Fences" thoughtfully examines the escalating racial tensions in America during the 1950s. The playwright deftly handles such complex social issues as racism and adultery without smug commentary. The subtle discussion of black America offers more insight than lecture, which heightens the dramatic impact upon the audience. Wilson recognizes that the family lies the foundation for American society as a whole, and shrewdly chooses family as the emphasis for "Fences."
The play's central focus is the Maxson's, the instrument Wilson uses to introduce African-American culture to those who are unfamiliar. In the mid-1950s, America was still experiencing a post-World War II economic boon, and could at last allow foreign affairs to take a back seat to domestic issues. The social climate was becoming increasingly heated with the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, which ruled school segregation was unconstitutional. This landmark ruling ignited racial tensions across America, which had been slowly simmering for years.
The protagonist of "Fences" is former baseball player-turned Pittsburgh garbage man Troy Maxson, and the antagonist is clearly racism. It is racism which has defied Troy Maxson at every turn and his skin color stood in the way of his quest to grab a piece of the American dream for himself and his family. Racism creates the conflict, which causes Troy to feel that he has been "fenced" in by a discriminatory society. It has heated tensions within the Maxson home between Troy and his wife, Rose, and Troy and his son Cory.
August Wilson establishes an impression of the 53-year-old Troy Maxson early in Act I, writing that he is "a large man with thick, heavy hands; it is this largeness that he strives to fill out and make an accommodation with. Together with his blackness, his largeness informs his sensibilities and the choices he has made in his life... He can be crude and almost vulgar, though he is capable of rising to profound heights of expression" (1).
The central focus of the play is clearly Troy -- his family relationships and his adulterous affair with Alberta.