August Wilson’s Fences is the sixth of his 10-play series charting the experience of black Americans in the 20th century, each play portraying a different decade. Written in 1983, Fences is set in the 1950s, as racial discrimination is beginning to decline. Troy is a rubbish collector in his 50s who was once a talented baseball player but was prevented from realising his potential by the ban on black men from playing in the major leagues. In a powerful performance by the English comedian-actor Lenny Henry, we see the embittered Troy try to ban his 17-year-old son Cory (Ashley Zhangazha) from playing American football and instead “get you a trade – that way you got something nobody can’t take away”.
But times have changed. Troy’s wife Rose chastises him for using “nigger” instead of “negro”; his sons have ambitions beyond rubbish collection; and black and white men now play baseball together, even if, as Troy insists, the “coloured guy has to be twice as good” to make the team. The old boundaries – or fences – are shifting, and Troy and his family are grappling with the changes.
The period is evoked in piano blues played between scenes and the shabby house on whose porch Troy holds court, swigging from a gin bottle. But the play’s themes are timeless: fatherhood and the conflict between individual desire and social duty. Troy, who escaped his own tyrannical father at 14, feels the burden of patriarchal responsibility, but struggles sometimes to find “the strength to carry me through to the next Friday”. When he’s unfaithful to Rose, he chooses short-term gratification at a cost. “Don’t you think I ever wanted other things?” Rose cries when their marriage begins to unravel.
Fences earned Wilson the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play the same year, but it is unmistakably clumsy. The important points – for instance, that Cory both emulates and rejects Troy’s example – are hammered home, leaving nothing to inference. While the acting is committed, the first half in particular feels static: a series of sedentary conversations. Tanya Moodie as the long-suffering Rose, and Colin McFarlane as Troy’s friend Bono, work admirably with material that can be over-obvious. This is a moving if flawed exploration of the nature of personal fulfilment.