The Theme of Race Relations in the Plays Fences and Piano lesson by August Wilson


August Wilson, known as a famous American playwright, was born on April 27, 1945, in Fredrick August Kittle. Wilson grew up always dealing with race-related issues such as segregation due to the fact that his mother was an African-American and also a German immigrant. He was primarily raised by the mother since his father was not around as much, and this also greatly affected the formation of the character of little Wilson. The upbringing was not all joyful as Wilson dwelled in an apartment with poor conditions, and to make the matters worse, he lived in a black neighborhood. Therefore, he had a great experience with racial relations. This experience is most reflected in Wilson’s work, and the work associated with the racial worldview of the playwright is the main theme of this study.


One of the perfect works written by the playwright in 1985 is Fences, though it is believed that this play was set in 1950. The play was included in Wilson’s collection, which he called the ‘Pittsburgh Cycle’. The main purpose of this collection was to reflect changes in the African-American experience and understanding of racial relations, among other topics. The Fences was well received by the audience, and over time, even won the Pulitzer Prize Award in 1987 and the Tony Award for Best Play of the Year.

The main theme of the play focused on the African-American experience and the image of a black family struggling but managing to develop a general appeal.

The play’s main theme might be a focus on the African-American experience and the depiction of a struggling black family, but it manages to develop a universal appeal. The main conflict that is the center of the play is an occurrence that can be witnessed or experienced in any kind of family.

The protagonist and the main character in the play is a character named Troy Maxson. He is a one that lives under the shadow of his parents. He faces a great challenge trying to be a good father, unlike his father, who had been really harsh and quite a negative influence. He tries to raise his son Cory in a better way. Through Troy’s experience, Wilson brings out the ideas that no matter how old someone becomes, every individual will constantly willingly or not compare themselves with the examples set by the parents. This is one of the human struggles that Wilson portrays in the story.

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Another struggle is the one that is the subject of this study, which is race relations. Given that Troy is Black, he is constantly facing a battle dealing with the dear of discrimination. He has to worry about not only his family but also for himself. For instance, there is a time where his son comes to him and his wife about an opportunity for a scholarship through college football. Troy is concerned and eventually decides that he was not going to allow his son to take on the scholarship because he feared that his son would face a lot of discrimination because of his race. He based his decision on his own experiences in the National League. Such experiences greatly affected the minority races at the time. Troy’s experiences also ended up contributing to the eventual estrangement within the family (Elkins 12-33).

Piano Lesson

This play was released in 1990 and was also done by August Wilson. This was the fourth play in the ten-play collection of The Pittsburgh Cycle. The analysis of the play reveals that Wilson was trying to develop a sense of self-worth through accepting or denying one’s past. Just like Fence play, this play won the Pulitzer award but in 1990.

According to Wilson, the inspiration to write the play came from a painting by Romare Bearden. Through it, Wilson decided to create a character of a strong African-American woman who has been seen to be a direct opposite of the character Troy in the Fences. Through the story, Wilson centers on the empowerment of Berniece, who is the protagonist in the play, and through it developing questing regarding self-worth. At the end of the story, the reader is left with a question on what legacy is and how is someone supposed to put it to use.

Furthermore, the analysis of the story reveals Wilson’s quest to bring about the understanding of self-worth. The story revolves around the Piano, which is a symbol of conservativeness. The protagonist is against the sale of the Piano as it is hard some sentimental significance to the family of the protagonist. This is the general symbolism of acquiescing and maintenance of self-worth. Furthermore, Wilson also depicts the significance of connections between an individual with the parents and grandparents. He seems to believe that in order for one to understand his or her background, that individual should be willing to learn from the parents (Van Cleave 3-40).

As mentioned above, the story revolves around a protagonist who chooses to embrace the past (Berniece) and the antagonist (Boy Willie), who does not see the significance of the past. The Piano, which is the center of the debate, was a symbol of the struggle the family, being a black family, went through as slaves. Unlike the Fence play, Wilson seems to subscribe to the idea that the past should be allowed to shape the future.


The two plays seem to intersect in the sense of the past meeting and affecting the present. In the case of race relations, the past is mainly characterized by oppression, such as slavery and other forms of discrimination. These negative vices have ended up shaping the present; this is how the symbol of ghosts is used in the play The Piano Lesson. The struggles witnessed in Fences are now acknowledged in The Piano Lesson.


Works Cited

Elkins, Marilyn, ed. August Wilson: A Casebook. vol. 1626. Routledge, 2013.

Van Cleave, Rachel A. “Property Lessons in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson and the Wake of Hurricane Katrina.” Cal. WL Rev., vol.43, 2006, p. 97.