Jan 10, 2006
The first staged reading of August Wilson's play Fences occurred in 1983 at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center's National Playwright's Conference. Wilson's drama opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985 and on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre in 1987. Fences was well-received, winning four Antionette ("Tony") Perry Awards, including best play. The work also won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the John Gassner Outer Critics' Circle Award. Wilson was also selected as Artist of the Year by the Chicago Tribune.
Fences was a huge success with both critics and viewers, and it drew black audiences to the theatre in much larger numbers than usual. Because the play had four years of pre-production development before it opened on Broadway, Wilson had a chance to tighten and revise the action, watching his characters mature into lifelike creations. James Earl Jones played the role of Troy in the first staging of Fences on Broadway. Jones—and many black audience members—recognized and identified with Wilson's use of language to define his black characters. In an interview with Heather Henderson in Theater, Jones stated that "Few writers can capture dialect as dialogue in a manner as interesting and accurate as August's."
Reviewers also noted Wilson's ability to create believable characters. In his review for Newsweek, Allan Wallach noted that it is the men who dominate the script and bring it to life—singling out Jones, whom Wallach noted, is at his best "in the bouts of drinking and bantering." It is Jones's performance that creates "a rich portrait of a man who scaled down his dreams to fit inside his run-down yard." Clive Barnes, writing for the New York Post, said that Wilson provides "the strongest, most passionate American dramatic writing since Tennessee Williams" (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). Fences, said Barnes, "gave me one of the richest experiences I have ever had in the theater."
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Fences | Author Biography
August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel, on April 27, 1945. in a ghetto area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, known as "The Hill." Wilson's white father, a German baker named August Kittel. abandoned the family when Wilson was a child. Wilson's mother, Daisy Wilson Kittel. worked as a cleaning woman to raise her six children. Later, after Wilson's mother had remarried, his stepfather moved the family to a white neighborhood where Wilson was subjected to unbridled racism. At age 15. Wilson dropped out of school after being falsely accused of plagiarism; after that episode, he continued his education on his own, with periods of extensive reading at the public library.
Wilson began his career writing poetry and short stories but switched to drama in 1978 when he was invited to write plays for a black theatre in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Several fellowships enabled Wilson to concentrate on writing plays as a full-time venture. Although his early efforts, Fullerton Street (1980), Black Bun and the Sacred Hills (1981), and Jitney (1982), received little attention, he gained recognition with his 1984 play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which was accepted for a staged reading at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center's National Playwright's Conference in 1982. The following year, Fences was also presented at the O'Neill conference, and in 1986 Joe Turner's Come and Gone became Wilson's third play to be produced at the conference.
Each of these plays followed their initial readings at the O'Neill with productions at the Yale Repertory Theatre and later stagings on Broadway. In 1987, The Piano Lesson opened al the Yale Repertory Theatre; Two Trains Running followed three years later. Wilson's Seven Guitars opened at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 1995. Wilson has stated that he envisions his plays as representative of the black experience in America, since each play is set in a different decade.
Wilson married for the first time in 1969, but the marriage ended after three years and the birth of a daughter, Sakina Ansari. He married for a second time in 1981; this marriage ended in 1990. Wilson has won several honors for his writing, including the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, an Antionette ("Tony") Perry Award, and a Pulitzer Prize for Fences. The Piano Lesson was also awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1990. Several of his other works have been nominated for Tony Awards.
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Fences | Act I Summary
Act I, scene i
The play opens with Troy and Bono engaged in their usual Friday night ritual of drinking and talking. Troy has made a formal complaint to his bosses that only white men are permitted to drive the garbage trucks for the waste disposal company at which both men work. The two men finish their discussion of work, and Bono asks Troy about a woman, Alberta, he suspects Troy of seeing. Troy denies that he would risk losing his wife, Rose, but Bono does not give up so easily and reminds Troy that he has been seen at Alberta's house when he said he was elsewhere.
Their conversation is interrupted by Troy's wife, Rose, who enters the yard. Their conversation about where to shop is interrupted by Lyons's entrance. Lyons is Troy's son by a previous marriage. He has come by because he knows that his father gets paid on Fridays; he is in need of a loan and asks his father for ten dollars. Troy pointedly notes that Lyons needs to get a job. Lyons's reply is that his father had no hand in raising him, and thus, he has no right to chastise or complain about how Lyons is living his life. Rose intervenes and gives Lyons the money.
Act I, scene ii
Rose is hanging clothes on the line. Troy enters and they begin to banter about Rose's habit of playing numbers (a form of betting, like a lottery). Troy thinks it foolish and a waste of money, but Rose finds this little bit of gambling to be a harmless diversion that occasionally offers a small reward. Their conversation moves to Troy's inquiry about the presence of their son, Cory. At that moment, Troy's brother, Gabriel, enters the yard. He is singing and carrying a bowl of discarded fruit and vegetables that he has picked up and is now attempting to sell. Gabriel was injured in the war and is now mentally disabled. Gabriel is worried that his older brother is angry that he has moved out and into his own place. As Gabriel exits, still singing, Rose reassures Troy that he has done all he can to care for his brother.
Act I, scene iii
Four hours later, Rose is taking the dried clothes down from the line. Cory enters and is directed by his mother to get into the house and start the chores that he ignored when he went to football practice. Troy enters the yard and after hearing that Cory is home, yells for his son to come out of the house. An argument ensues between father and son about Cory's concentration on football at the expense of his other obligations: school, chores, and a part-time job he has just quit. Troy demands complete control over Cory and insists that he quit football. Cory responds by asking his father why he doesn't like his son. Troy evades a direct answer, and, instead, he replies that his son is provided with a home and food because he, Troy, fulfills his responsibility to his family. The confrontation ends with Troy telling Cory to get back down to the supermarket and get his job back.
When Rose returns, Troy explains that he wants his son to do better than his father and to have a better job than that of a garbage man. Rose tries to soften Troy by reminding him that he missed his chance to be a professional athlete because he was too old, but Troy is unwilling to admit that she is right. The scene ends with Troy's declaration that he simply moves through life, existing from one Friday night to the next.
Act I, scene iv
It is another Friday night, two weeks later, and Cory is on his way to play football. He ignores Rose when she confronts him about the chores he has left undone and states that he'll do them later. Troy and Bono enter the yard after Cory leaves, and Troy announces that he has been made a driver. At that moment Lyons comes to repay the money he borrowed two weeks ago. Most of this scene is devoted to the issue of Cory's future.
Troy launches into an autobiographical story that explains much of his behavior. The audience learns about Troy's brutal father and that he has been on his own since he was fourteen. The audience also learns that Troy spent fifteen years in jail and that is where he met Bono. The scene ends with a confrontation between Troy and Cory, who has just entered the yard. Troy accuses Cory of lying and orders him to get his old job back and quit the football team.
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