Fences? Background Information


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Period: Fences
Introductory Handout
Focal Point: How can we introduce Fences?
Background Information
Time and place written: Developed from 1983–1987; United States

Date of first publication: June, 1986

Setting: 1957, later, 1965, the dirt-yard and porch of the Maxson family's house in Pittsburgh, PA

Themes: Coming of age within the cycle of damaged black manhood; interpreting and inheriting history; the choice between pragmatism and illusions as survival mechanisms

Symbols: Trains; fences; the devil
August Wilson and Fences Background
August Wilson

August Wilson was named Frederick August Kittel when he was born to a German father and an African American mother in 1945. Wilson was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA. His father drifted in an out of his family. His mother and a stepfather, David Bedford, mostly raised Wilson.


When Wilson was sixteen, he was accused of plagiarism at school when he wrote a sophisticated paper that the administration did not believe he could write. When Wilson's principal would not recognize the validity of Wilson's work, she suspended him and later ignored his attempts to come back to school. Wilson soon dropped out and educated himself at the local library, reading everything he could find. In the 1960's,

Young adult life:

Wilson steeped himself in the black power movement while he worked on his poetry and short stories. Eventually, in the sixties, Fences was Wilson's second play to go to Broadway and won him the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama again in 1990 for his play The Piano Lesson.

Fences is about blacks in the 1950's. Beginning in 1957, between the Korean and Vietnam wars, Fences ends in 1965, but the themes of the play directly place its consciousness in a pre-civil-rights-movement, pre-Vietnam-war-era psyche.
One character is Troy Maxson. His last name, "Maxson," is a reference to the Mason-Dixon line, considered as the imaginary line originally conceived of in 1820 to define the separation between the slave states and the free states.
Wilson purposefully sets the play during the season Hank Aaron led the Milwaukee Braves to the World Series, beating the New York Giants. When Fences takes place, blacks like Aaron proved they could not only compete with white ballplayers, but that they would be leaders in the professional league.

Write down three facts you learned about August Wilson.

Write down three pieces of information you learned about the play.

Anticipation Guide
Directions: Write whether you agree or disagree with each statement and why you agree or disagree.

1. A husband and father’s only responsibility is to take care of his family’s needs (food, clothes, shelter), but he does not need to like his children or his wife.

2. Having good friends and a good family are more important than having a prestigious job or a successful career.

3. Before the beginning of the play beings, Wilson has a poem that reads, “When the sins of our fathers visit us/ We do not have to pay host./We can banish them with forgiveness…” Do you agree that we do not have to make the same mistakes that our parents or older relatives made?

4. From what you know of the 1950s and 1960s, America has changed significantly in its treatment of African Americans.

5. If something bad happened in our own lives, or we were mistreated for certain reasons, we should not let our children pursue their dreams because they could get hurt in the very same way.

6. As humans, we have to build fences to keep loved ones in and evil ones out.

7. If you or your family was in desperate need of something and you didn’t have any money, you would steal to provide for your family.

8. The man who takes care of his responsibilities has more freedom than the man who does whatever he feels like.

The following poem relates to the themes and concepts in Fences. You will have to answer questions based on the poem after we read it.

"Fences" by Rev. Rebecca Guile Hudson

He's aware
of the yard he lives in --

aware of the fences

that define
his constant existence

He feels his life

is missing
from the world
outside those fences --

He's very afraid

of what lies beyond them, feels
very safe,
having such a perimeter
contain his life --

and yet,


when roaring lightning

cracks storms into his skies,

all he can think of, all

he's impelled towards,

from the very deep in-side-

out of his soul

is to panic & bolt,

cause himself even bodily harm
just to
find a way
out, find a way
to dig free, to
leave those fences behind --

to run amuck, un-

entrapped, seeking
freedom from fear
in the very places
that he sees as offering
no safety, no

Then, when he calms

when he's done
with his run,

the sole object burning

in his primitive mind
is to seek again
the warmth and comfort
of familiarity and safety,

and he
returns to his yard,

settles back down within his fences,
and pretends to himself
that he'll never --
No, he'll never

do that scary thing

ever again and then,

as if to prove it to himself,
to convince himself he
really means it this time

he enters into the house

yarded by those fences
and goes to sleep, goes

and dreams of freedom

inside the walls
of the house
inside the yard,

in the center

of the fences
that circumscribe his world
Respond to the following with complete sentences and details from the poem (specific lines, etc.)
1) Write down three examples from the poem that show how “fences” affected the main character’s life.

2) Explain what you feel is the main message of the poem. Copy two lines that show this.

The following words appear throughout Fences. You will come across them and eventually be tested on them.

1) Methodical (adjective): performed, disposed, or acting in a systematic way; systematic; orderly


(noun): a searching examination or investigation; minute inquiry, surveillance; close and continuous watching or guarding.


(adjective): characterized by regular sequence of parts, following, subsequent

4)Ridicule (noun): speech or action intended to cause harmful laughter at a person or thing

(verb): make fun of

5)Irrespective (adjective): without regard to something else, ignoring or discounting (ex. – Irrespective of my wishes, I should go.)

6)Vernacular (adjective): native or indigenous

(noun): the native speech or language of a place

7)Eloquence (noun): the art of speaking so as to stir the feelings

8)Ramshackle (adjective): loose and shaky; likely to come apart

9)Provocative (adjective): tending or serving to call forth action, thought, laughter, anger, etc.

10)Vigilant (adjective): watchful; alert

11)Commenced (verb): began; started

12)Turbulent (adjective): wild or disorderly

Important Quotations Throughout the Play

We will interpret and discuss the significance of the following quotations as we read the play.

1) "Death ain't nothing but a fastball on the outside corner." - Early in the first scene of Act One, Troy weaves a tall-tale, or Uncle Remus story in the African American tradition, about his supposed encounter with different forms of death.

2) "Some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to you all. She loves you." - In the first scene of Act Two, Bono explains to Cory and Troy why Rose wants a fence built around their dirt yard.

3) "You can't visit the sins of the father upon the child." – Rose, Act two, Scene 3

4) "You got to take the crookeds with the straights. That's what Papa used to say." - In the last scene of the play, Act Two, Scene Five, Lyons recalls to Cory this statement that Troy used to say.

5) "That's the way that goes." - Gabriel says this on the last line of the play

Character List

Troy Maxson  - The protagonist of Fences, a fifty-three year-old, African American man who works for the sanitation department, lifting garbage into trucks. Troy is also a former baseball star in the Negro Leagues. Troy's athletic ability diminished before the Major Leagues accepted blacks.

Cory Maxson  -  The teenage son of Troy and Rose Maxson. A senior in high school, Cory gets good grades and college recruiters are coming to see him play football.

Rose Maxson  - Troy's wife and mother of his second child, Cory. Rose is a forty-three year-old African American housewife who volunteers at her church regularly and loves her family.

Gabriel Maxson  -  Troy's brother. Gabriel was a soldier in the Second World War, during which he received a head injury that required a metal plate to be surgically implanted into his head.

Jim Bono  -  Troy's best friend of over thirty years. Jim Bono is usually called "Bono" or "Mr. Bono" by the characters in Fences.

Lyons Maxson  -  Troy's son, fathered before Troy's time in jail with a woman Troy met before Troy became a baseball player and before he met Rose.

Raynell Maxson  -  Troy's illegitimate child, mothered by Alberta, his lover.

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