Fences was written by August Wilson and is part of Wilson’s “Century Cycle” of plays set in the 1950s in African American neighborhoods. These plays, nine of which take place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, “aim to sketch the Black experience in the 20th century and “raise consciousness through theater” and echo “the poetry in the everyday language of black America”.
Though developed for the Euguene O’Neill Theatre Center’s 1983 National Playwright’s Conference, Fences first premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1985 and in 1987 won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play. The first Broadway production stared James Earl Jones, Courtney B. Vance, Mary Alice, Frankie Faison, and Ray Arahna; it was directed by Lloyd Richards at the 46th Street Theatre and ran from May 1987 till June 1988. The original Broadway run won Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Performance of a Lead Actor in a Play (Jones), Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play (Alice), and Best Direction of a Play.
In Fences first revival run, which opened at the Cort Theatre in 2010, Kenny Leon cast Viola Davis and Denzel Washington as Troy and Rose Maxon, and the run secured three Tony Awards for best Revival of a Play, Best Actor in a Play, and Best Actress in a Play. Washington and Davis went on to reprise their roles in the 2016 film adaption of the period drama, which received four Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Washington), Best Supporting Actress (Davis), and Best Adapted Screenplay and two Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor (Washington) and Best Supporting Actress (Davis); Davis took home wins for both categories she was nominated for.
What is most interesting are the difficulties Wilson had in developing a for screen version of his Pulitzer Prize winning play. His desire for the film to be directed by an African American director coupled with the severe lack thereof in Hollywood made things complicated. And when it took years for a cast to be announced and for production to begin after Washington, in a 2013 interview with Empire, announced that he would be taking on the challenge of directing the film, things seemed too good to be true. That said, the film couldn’t have been released at a better time; the primary themes are race relations, the American Dream, and gender roles, and what better time to discuss these issues than now… at a time where race and gender relations are running high and the American Dream is in question.
Troy serves as the practical older man who forgot all about his dream of being a professional baseball player for the sake of adopting a career as a garbage man – he sees no point in reaching for success and rejects his son’s dreams of becoming a musician and a professional football player, partially out of fear and partially out of jealousy. As young people now, we’re told early on that we can be anything we want to be, but once we age, graduate from college, and obtain a degree, we’re expected to accept jobs for menial pay in order to gain some sort of faux experience. Like how Troy treats Lyons and Cory, we’re told that we should settle for less. The American Dream of a white picket fence and being able to achieve anything seems like a sham – and when you add in the aspect of race – being the first of black anything seemed like a miraculous feat in the 1950s… but we still have some pioneers now… more than 60 years later.
Similarly, Troy’s relationship with Rose, where he cheats on her and expects her to forgive and forget, is especially important now, in a time where women are struggling with having power over our own autonomy. Rose represents the struggle for women to maintain our independence while still falling under societal pressures. She raises Troy’s child despite the fact that the baby is Troy’s mistress’ but makes sure that Troy understands that he won’t be a part of her life or the baby’s.
The themes in Fences are more pertinent than ever – and it’s more important that these stories are being told from the eyes of an African American family. Fences came out at a time where race has become such a poignant issue. Debuting the year after the #OscarsSoWhite debacle is important, even if it wasn’t a purposeful choice. Not only did the film secure awards for the African American community, but one of the triumphs of Fences is that it depicts a story that could easily be relatable to anyone, white, black, or otherwise.
There’s no question: Fences is beautifully directed. Denzel Washington’s knowledge and understanding of the text is clear – his experience playing Troy on stage and screen aided him in crafting what is a captivating film.