Fences by August Wilson

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BBC Radio 3, 10 January 2010
Arguably August Wilson’s most renowned work, Fences explores the life and relationships of the Maxon family. This moving drama was written in 1983, ran for 570 performances on Broadway, and earned Wilson his first Pulitzer Prize.

The protagonist, Troy Maxon (Danny Sapiani) is a restless trash-collector and former baseball athlete living in Pittsburgh ın 1957. On one level he embodies the struggle for justice and fair treatment for African-Americans; on another level he represents human nature’s reluctance to recognize and accept social change. Throughout the text Wilson emphasizes this aspect by means of symbols such as the incomplete fence, the porch, and the makeshift baseball tied to a tree branch, reminding us of Troy's past glories (as compared to his present plight).

Claire Grove's production vividly illuminated the play's symbolic aspects. Troy's fences were both physical and mental: he liked the idea of privacy, so embarked on constructing a fence to separate himself from his neghbours; he constructed an imaginative fence where the past assumed more importance for him than the present; and he tried to create a familial (de)fence against the passage of time, wherein the respective roles of father, husband, wife and mother were clearly defined. Sadly the construction of all three fences proved fragile: the exterior fence remained unfinished; Troy confronted the futility of his present life and the impending approach of death (signalled by his frequent references to the devil's presence close by); while his son Cory (Daniel Anthony) treated the notion of paternal authority with contempt, dismissing it as "dumb stuff."

However Grove was at pains to stress that Fences was no latter-day Death of a Salesman - in other words, a portrayal of frustrated dreams and/or aspirations. In many ways Troy had only himself to blame for his plight - although claiming lasting fidelity to his wife Rose (Adjoa Andoh) throughout their 18-year marriage, he nonetheless saw nothing wrong in taking a lover. Rose herself showed a touching devotion to her husband, in spite of faults; but she did not appear particularly sympathetic. Rather she was the victim of her upbringing, which confined her to the homemaker's role. Troy knew this, and tried to take advantage of it. Such ideas underlined the complexities of the African-American experience in mid-century America; although they had been liberated from slavery, and were on the cusp of the Civil Rights movement, most people could hardly be described as 'free.' This is what lay at the heart of the conflict between Troy and Cory; both had conflicting visions of African-American identity, shaped by the past and the future.

Despite Troy's behaviour, it became clear that his values (shaped by the past) still held sway over his family. In the play's final scene, set eight years after the main action, we learned that they never broke apart, despite the trials that Troy put them through. What held a family like this together? In the end, it was the devotion to "duty and responsibility" that Troy drilled into them. Once together, they had no choice but to take care of each other, come what may.