Exploring Identity through Fences: A Theatrical Analysis of the African American Experience

Victoria Wai

In the realm of American theater, few works capture the essence of the African American experience during the tumultuous era of the Civil Rights Movement as powerfully as August Wilson’s timeless play, Fences. The sheer artistry of Wilson’s storytelling left me in awe. The way he seamlessly wove together the personal struggles of Troy, Rose, and Cory with the broader social and historical backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement was nothing short of genius. While reading I thought of it like a painting. Like a master sculptor, August Wilson deftly chisels his characters, imbuing them with a vitality that leaps from the pages and takes residence in the chambers of our hearts. Each scene is a brushstroke, painting vivid portraits of the emotions, stories, and feelings that the characters experience. Within the confines of a modest backyard in 1950s Pittsburgh, Wilson weaves a narrative tapestry that resonates with the struggles, hopes, and aspirations of an entire generation. Each character represents a distinct facet of the African American experience, their lives intertwined with the prevailing social currents of their time. 

In the presence of Troy Maxson, I stood in awe of his towering presence, his impassioned monologues shaking the very foundations of my understanding. I felt the weight of his frustrations, the anguish of unfulfilled dreams, and the simmering rage of a man confined by the chains of prejudice. And yet, within those moments of vulnerability, his vulnerability became mine, and I marveled at the strength that flickered within the cracks of his spirit. In capturing the essence of Troy Maxson’s profound perspective, there is a quote in Fences that demonstrates this so well.

“TROY: The colored guy got to be twice as good before he get on the team. That’s why I don’t want you to get all tied up in them sports. Man on the team and what it get him? They got colored on the team and don’t use them. Same as not having them. All them teams the same.”

Troy’s words reflect the bitter reality faced by many African Americans who were forced to confront the harsh truth that their talents and abilities were often overlooked or dismissed solely based on the color of their skin. In his profound awareness, Troy embodies the collective consciousness of African Americans during that era, who had to navigate a world where their talents and potential were undervalued and underutilized due to deeply ingrained prejudice and systemic racism. He represented the complexities of a man shaped by discrimination and limited opportunities. My initial dislike for Troy underscored the success of Wilson’s writing, as it compelled me to confront the uncomfortable realities of racial inequality and challenge my own biases. It reminded me that a character’s likability does not diminish its significance in representing broader societal issues.

As the focus shifts to Cory, Troy’s son in Fences, the narrative takes on another layer of complexity and generational conflict. While Troy embodies the frustrations of African Americans during the Civil Rights movement, Cory represents the aspirations and hopes of a younger generation seeking to challenge the status quo and demand equal opportunities. Through Cory’s character, August Wilson explores the tensions between tradition and progress, duty and individuality, giving voice to the dreams and struggles of those striving to carve out their own path amidst the constraints of racial discrimination. As the narrative unfolds, an intense moment arises in the play where Cory finds himself at the center of a gripping confrontation.

“CORY: Papa done went up to the school and told Coach Zellman I can’t play football no more. Wouldn’t even let me play the game. Told him to tell the recruiter not to come. . . . Why you wanna do that to me? That was the one chance I had . . . I can’t work after school during the football season, Pop! I tried to tell you Mr. Stawicki’s holding my job for me. You don’t never want to listen to nobody. And then you wanna go and do this to me! . . . Just cause you didn’t have a chance! You just scared I’m gonna be better than you, that’s all.”

In the powerful dialogue between Cory and his father, Troy, the quote reveals the deep-rooted dreams, hopes, and aspirations of not only Cory but also the larger African American community during times of adversity. As I immersed myself in the intensity of the moment, his words struck a deeply personal chord within me. The raw vulnerability and genuine desperation in his voice resonated on a profound level, evoking a wellspring of empathy and understanding. 

Through Rose’s character, Wilson offers a profound homage to the unsung heroes, the pillars of strength and love within African American families. She is the definition of resilience and strength. Her character serves as a beacon of stability and support in the tumultuous lives of Troy and Cory. Rose’s unwavering commitment to her family and her ability to navigate the complexities of their relationships exemplify her profound depth as a character. As a reader, I was captivated by Rose’s unwavering spirit, her unyielding love, and her ability to find solace and fulfillment within the boundaries of her circumstances. We see her express this deep emotion inside her with the following quote,

“‘ROSE: I been standing with you! I been right here with you, Troy. I got a life too. I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot with you. Don’t you think I ever wanted other things? Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes? . . . Don’t you think it ever crossed my mind to want to know other men? That I wanted to lay up somewhere and forget about my responsibilities? That I wanted someone to make me laugh so I could feel good? . . . But I held on to you, Troy. I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams . . . and I buried them inside you.”

Her selflessness and unwavering commitment to her family, even at the cost of her own happiness and personal aspirations, left me feeling both inspired and saddened. The realization of the immense sacrifices she had made, burying her own needs and aspirations for the sake of her loved ones, carried a weight that was heart-wrenching. The quote left an indelible mark, evoking a powerful blend of emotions that lingered long after I had finished reading. Rose’s character transcends the pages of the play, becoming an embodiment of the strength and tenacity of African American women who have faced countless hardships and triumphed against all odds.

As a reader, I was deeply moved by the raw emotions, profound dialogues, and the nuanced portrayal of these characters. Its universal themes of love, sacrifice, and the pursuit of dreams resonate with readers everywhere. I wholeheartedly recommend Fences to anyone seeking a profound and transformative literary experience. Fences is a testament to the power of literature to shed light on the human condition, to challenge societal norms, and to ignite profound conversations about identity, social justice, and the pursuit of dreams.