Playwrights typically establish the scenes in which the following action will occur with detailed instructions for the production crew. These details, understandably, are intended to help set the mood and context for what will follow. In the opening set instructions for Fences, playwright August Wilson provides this seemingly innocuous...
Playwrights typically establish the scenes in which the following action will occur with detailed instructions for the production crew. These details, understandably, are intended to help set the mood and context for what will follow. In the opening set instructions for Fences, playwright August Wilson provides this seemingly innocuous description of his protagonists’ home in a rundown section of Pittsburgh:
The yard is a small dirt yard, partially fenced, except for the last scene, with a wooden saw horse, a pile of lumber, and other fence-building equipment set off to the side.
As Wilson’s play proceeds, that unfinished fence becomes a metaphor for an unfinished life, for commitments not met, and for barriers both from the outside world and to entrance into that same world. Exchanges between Troy, the play’s main figure, an embittered former athlete—a black baseball player in the days when racism was a seemingly insurmountable barrier (or fence) to black inclusion and advancement—and now-garbage collector, and his wife Rose, a deeply religious woman ten years younger than her husband and resigned to the indignities and struggles that accompanied many African American lives during the era depicted, invariably return to the topic of the unfinished fence and Rose’s spiritual longing for a barrier to insulate her from the evils of the world. Early in the play, Rose is heard singing, “Jesus, be a fence all around me every day Jesus, I want you to protect me as I travel on my way.”
The partially-completed fence surrounding the Maxson’s yard also symbolizes the gulf between Troy and his son Cory, the only of the three children around the house to which Rose has given birth (the first, Lyons, was from an earlier relationship before Troy and Rose were married; the youngest, Raynell, is the illegitimate offspring of Troy’s extramarital affair). Rose wants Troy and Cory to finish the fence, but that requires a shared experience on the part of a father and son, between whom exists an invisible wall (or fence) separating generations and the chasm between an embittered past and a hopeful future. At one point, Troy inquires about Cory’s whereabouts, suggesting that his, Troy’s, desire to work on the fence is thwarted by Cory’s absence: “He gone out 'cause he know I want him to help me with this fence. I know how he is. That boy scared of work.” Troy’s lack of enthusiasm for finishing the fence, however, is evident in a scene in which Rose suggests that Troy will use any excuse available to avoid working on this project:
You got something to say about everything. First it's the numbers . . . then it's the way the man runs his restaurant . . . then you done got on Cory. What's it gonna be next? Take a look up there and see if the weather suits you . . . or is it gonna be how you gonna put up the fence with the clothes hanging in the yard.
Late in act 2, scene 4, Troy and Cory engage in a confrontation that brings forth years' worth of repressed and not-so-repressed antagonisms between father and son. Cory and Troy engage in a physical struggle that ends with a major break between the two that will, we learn, remain unresolved. As Troy kicks Cory out of the house, the two have the following exchange:
CORY Tell Mama I'll be back for my things.
TROY: They’ll be on the other side of that fence.
It was no mistake that Wilson titled his play “Fences.” Barriers play a vital symbolic role in his play. The unfinished fence around the yard, the location of the much of the play’s action, sits as a silent metaphor for the barriers, wanted and unwanted, that permeate Wilson’s narrative. In this climactic scene, the fence, again, symbolizes the barrier between Troy's life and that of the rest of the world. Inside that fence, he is the master of his realm; outside, he is a poor, under-educated black male denied his proper place in the world. Cory represents the potential and promise denied Troy by virtue of the systemic racism that dominated American society. Troy's death and Cory's reconciliation to the imperfect relationship he had had with his father is the best for which these characters can hope.