How to Teach Fences

August Wilson's powerful play Fences examines historic racism in America, as well as explores the universal themes of family, gender roles, and responsibility. While reading the play, teachers can explain the contrast between what characters do and others' perceptions of their actions. For example, students will be able to discuss whether, in his attempt to protect his son from discrimination, Troy sabotages Cory's chance for a college education and a better future. Was his decision truly in Cory's best interest, or was Troy simply jealous of his son's potential?

It is important to provide background information on sharecroppers and racial segregation prior to the 1960s, including baseball's Negro Leagues. Students should understand that during the late 1950s, America inched toward racial progress because African Americans began to more vocally oppose their mistreatment as they campaigned for equal rights. Students should analyze how changing race relations contribute to Troy's alienation from his family.

Your class can also analyze Fences on a figurative level by examining the literal and metaphorical significance of fences, the symbolism of Gabriel's and Troy's names, the baseball metaphors, and the importance of songs in the play.

Summary

The play opens in 1957 in a Middle-American industrial city. Two African American men, Troy Maxson and Jim Bono, socialize after receiving their paychecks. Troy's son Cory has been recruited by a college football team, but Troy worries that Cory will face racial discrimination, just as Troy had when he played baseball. Troy's older son, Lyons, and brain-damaged brother, Gabriel, visit.

Troy soon learns that he has impregnated his mistress, Alberta, who dies in childbirth. Rose, Troy's spouse, agrees to care for the baby, but refuses to remain Troy's dutiful wife. Cory continues to have a contentious relationship with his father, which culminates with his kicking Cory out of the house.

Seven years later, Cory returns home from military training to attend his father's funeral. He interacts with his half-sister, Raynell, and pays his respects to Troy.

Fences

Fences

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Troy Maxson is a survivor—a black man who has remained proud despite pressure that could crush a man. As things begin to change and the 1960s take hold, Troy finds that he has become a stranger in his own family and community.After so many years of fighting adversity, he becomes angry and afraid as he tries to face the new world and a wife and son he barely understands.

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Content Warning

This play contains racial epithets and mentions rape and adultery.

Objectives for Teaching Fences

  • State the significance of the play's title, relating the title to specific events in the play.
  • Recognize patterns in the Maxson men's lives and compare Lyons and Cory to Troy and to each other; additionally, compare Troy's relationship with his father to Cory’s with Troy.
  • Identify the antagonist(s) of the play from the perspectives of Troy, Rose, Lyons, and Cory.
  • Discuss the use of songs and music in the play.
  • Reflect upon the role Gabriel plays in Troy's life, as well as upon the symbolic significance of the brothers' names.
  • Compare the roles of men and of women.
  • Assess whether Troy's failures are a result of his bad decisions or of a flawed society.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Foil
  • Foreshadowing
  • Irony
  • Metaphor
  • Personification
  • Symbol
  • Tragic Hero

Themes and Motifs

  • Racism — Troy has experienced racial discrimination as a baseball player and as a trash collector. The Maxsons' struggle to achieve their dreams in the 1950s, before African Americans gained equal rights.
  • Parent-Child Relationships — Troy's father was argumentative and abusive; while he tries to be a good parent to his own children, Troy continues the pattern of conflict.
  • Betrayal — Troy refuses to allow Cory to play football and kicks his son out of the house over their argument. Troy also has an extramarital affair.

Key Facts

  • Length: 101 pages
  • Publication Date: 1986
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11-12

Awards

  • Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1987)
  • Tony Award for Best Play (1987)
  • Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play (1987)

Movies

A movie adaptation directed by Denzel Washington and starring Washington and Viola Davis premiered in December 2016. It is among the few movies in the Academy Awards Best Film of the Year conversation. It received a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes for the "stunningly complex and deeply human achievements" of its two main actors. Davis won the Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture. Both Washington and Davis are contenders for an Academy Award this year. The screenplay was written by August Wilson and discovered after his death; therefore, it stays quite true to the original play and voice of the writer.

Your students will love:

  • The compelling characters and Rose's dramatic monologue.
  • Examining how race relations affected the African American characters' dreams and relationships.

Students may have problems with:

  • The time jumps between acts and scenes.
  • Students may find Troy an unlikeable and unsympathetic character.

Available from Prestwick House:

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Fences
Complete Teacher's Kit
Response Journal

This post was originally posted November 2016. It has been updated as of January 2017.

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