The literal fence is the one that garbage collector Troy Maxson (Fishburne) is building with his son Cory (Bryan Clark) in the backyard of their dilapidated Pittsburgh home in the summer of 1957. A former baseball player in the Negro League who never made it to the majors, Troy wears the disappointment of that unfulfilled dream like a tattered jersey that he can't throw away. The anger that burns in him for this and other deeply felt inequities comes out in every brutal swing of the baseball bat he keeps near the back porch of the house.
Equal parts philosopher, jokester, and roguish romancer, Troy is also blindly self-centered -- the true depth of this arrogance comes into sharp focus in Act II -- and his already imposing physical presence takes a truly terrifying shape after one too many swigs of gin or disagreements over his harshly barked out orders. Fishburne manages to take this aggressive, complicated character and build him even bigger. He makes Troy a true force of nature, a howling hurricane of a man who has weathered so many accumulated storms of injustices that he feels completely warranted in devastating everything and everyone in his path.
Primarily, that means his family: his wife of 18 years, Rose (Bassett); his two boys, struggling musician Lyons (Kadeem Hardison) and athlete Cory; and his brother, Gabriel (the affecting Orlando Jones), who was brain-damaged in the war and is now Troy's responsibility. The fence that is gradually built around the family home during the course of the show becomes a visual metaphor for the layers of protection that Troy installs to protect his distorted view of the world.
"Some folks build fences to keep people out; others build fences to keep people in," observes Troy's longtime friend Bono (a thoughtful and highly entertaining Wendell Pierce). The most obvious example of this is Troy's explosive relationship with Cory, whom he forbids to accept an athletic scholarship. Cory's efforts to stand up to his father and live his own dreams are crushed by Troy's absolute refusal to dismantle the emotional fence he has constructed between them, a stance that forces his son to take extreme action. Cory's reappearance in the final scene, which takes place eight years after the bulk of the action, elicited gasps of surprise from the audience as the path that he took was made clear.
Even more painful is Troy's betrayal of his devoted wife. If Troy is the hurricane, then Rose is the deeply rooted tree that endures the tempest, suffers the consequences, yet never lets go. Bassett fills Rose with dignity, compassion, and maternal love, but she also freezes with bitter cold resentment and can match the volatile Fishburne with a wild intensity all her own.
Mention must also be made of the brief but charming appearance of Victoria Matthews as the self-assured Raynell, whose role in this familial drama cannot be revealed without spilling secrets that are better kept quiet. Suffice it to say that the character makes it clear where she comes from and where she belongs -- and this is all that's needed.
Fences has often been described as Wilson's most accessible work, with good reason. Specific in its exploration of the burdens carried by African-Americans during the 1950s and 1960s, the play is also appealingly universal in its depiction of the human drama. Whether literal or figurative, a fence is a means of marking territory that's not to be crossed without permission. The lesson Troy has such difficulty learning is that fences come with gates. Protection remains, but access is possible.