Troy Maxson, the protagonist of August Wilson’s Fences, is the son of a frustrated sharecropper whose harshness drove off his wives and Troy. Troy has made his way north to a world where African Americans live in shacks and are unable to find work. Troy takes to stealing, kills a man, and is sent to prison, where he learns how to play baseball, which he loves and at which he excels. Segregation confines Troy, after prison, to the Negro Leagues. He is angry at the racism that frustrates his attempt at achieving the American Dream in the most American of sports, but he remains resilient. Fences celebrates his indomitable spirit, while acknowledging his flaws.
The play opens in 1957, when Troy is fifty-three years old. He is appealing in the zest with which he dramatizes his life. A battle with pneumonia becomes a time when he wrestles with a white-robed and hooded Death, and buying furniture on credit from a white man becomes making a deal with the devil. His friend Bono seems to acknowledge the African American tradition of these tall tales when he comments: “You got some Uncle Remus in your blood.” The audience learns of Troy’s admirable defiance at work in questioning the sanitation department’s policy of having all the whites drive while the blacks do the lifting. Troy also has an affectionate teasing relationship with Bono and his wife Rose.
As the play continues, however, Troy erects fences between himself and those he loves. He refuses to allow his son to accept a football fellowship to college and then forces him to leave home. Troy loses contact with Bono after being promoted at work. Troy hurts his wife through an extramarital affair, and he commits his brain-damaged brother, Gabe, to a mental institution so he can collect part of Gabe’s government checks.
Although Troy has tragic flaws, the ending of Fences is not tragic. A spirit of reconciliation is brought by Gabe, who has been allowed to leave the mental hospital to attend his brother’s funeral. Gabe thinks that, when he blows his trumpet, Saint Peter will open the pearly gates and allow Troy into Heaven. Gabe’s horn lacks a mouthpiece, however, and, distraught, he performs a dance, connected, presumably, to pre-Christian African ancestors. In performance, the stage is then flooded with light, indicating that the gates have opened.
Longtime friends Troy Maxson and Jim Bono are participating in their Friday (payday) night ritual of drinking and talking on Troy’s porch. They discuss a complaint Troy had filed about working conditions that deny black garbage workers the opportunity to drive garbage trucks. Jim shifts the conversation to the subject of Alberta, for whom he believes Troy has more than a passing interest, but Troy denies the accusation.
Rose, Troy’s wife, joins Troy and Jim on the porch. Troy explains to Jim about how he and Rose first met; Rose corrects his version of what happened. Troy and Rose disagree about shopping at the local black grocery store versus shopping at the A&P supermarket. Their difference of opinion continues when they discuss their teenage son, Cory, and his plans to play college football. Troy tells a story about how he had wrestled Death and won. Lyons, Troy’s son by an earlier marriage, stops by. Troy anticipates that he wants to borrow money. Lyons rejects Troy’s offer to get him a job because it is his music that gives his life meaning. Troy directs his son to get ten dollars from Rose, because she is the one who gets her husband’s paycheck every Friday.
The next morning, Rose sings while she hangs up the laundry, and Troy considers her playing the numbers as a waste of money. Gabriel, Troy’s younger brother, visits. He suffers from a World War II brain injury, which has left him mentally deficient. He carries with him a basket of discarded fruits and vegetables as well as an old trumpet tied around his waist. Gabe, as he is called, is concerned that Troy is angry with him for moving out of their house. After Gabe leaves, Rose expresses concern that her brother-in-law may not be eating properly at his new boardinghouse, and she and Troy discuss the possibility of having him hospitalized again. Troy feels that no one wants to be locked up. He recalls that if it had not been for Gabe’s injury, he would have the same condition, too. Rose expects her husband to work on the fence, but he says that he is going down to Taylor’s.
Cory wants to know from his father why the family does not have a television. Troy responds by instructing his son on the importance of not going into debt. They discuss Troy’s baseball days and current baseball players. Troy wants his son to work, not to play football. Troy’s opposition prompts Cory to ask why his father does not like him. Troy responds by talking about responsibility. Cory is his son and he is obligated to take care of him, but he does not have to like him. Rose overhears their conversation and tells Troy that he is more than forty years old and too old to play in the major leagues. She says that the world is changing around him.
Two weeks later, Cory leaves the house carrying his football equipment, and Troy and Jim celebrate Troy’s promotion to garbage-truck driver. When Lyons returns the ten dollars he had borrowed, he reminds his father that Cory is nearly grown up. Troy, however, is upset that Cory has pretended to be keeping his job at the A&P when he is really sneaking off to football practice without telling his father. Troy confides to his older son that he had been abused by his own father, abuse that had caused him to leave home for good when he was fourteen years old. He reminisces, too, about meeting Rose, meeting Jim, and learning to play baseball. Lyons invites his father to hear him play at the Grill, but Troy turns down the invitation. Cory comes home upset because he had learned that his father had told his coach that he could no longer play on the high school football team.
The next morning, Rose informs Cory that the police have picked up Uncle Gabe for disturbing the peace. Troy bails Gabe out of jail and then begins to work on the fence with Jim. The fence is important to Rose, who sees it as a symbol of keeping her family consolidated and secure within the warm circle of the household. As Jim points out to Troy, “Rose wants to hold on to you all. She loves you.” Jim urges Troy not to do wrong by Rose and to get his life in order so that Rose will not have to find out about Troy’s love affair with another woman. Troy reminds Jim to do right by his own wife and to buy her the refrigerator for which she has been asking. Jim agrees to buy the refrigerator after Troy finishes the fence for Rose.
Jim leaves, and Troy has an important conversation with Rose, revealing that another woman is pregnant with his child. During their conversation, Gabe visits, and Rose, though she is trying to process what Troy is disclosing to her, directs Gabe to get some watermelon. Rose is baffled by Troy’s unfaithfulness at this point in their marriage of eighteen years. Troy’s defense is that he thought he could be a new man with Alberta, who had taken him away from the pressures and problems of his life. To Troy’s revelation that he felt trapped, Rose retorts that she had been right there standing beside him, willingly giving up whatever hopes and dreams that she could have nurtured to provide a home for him. Her discovery that he is not the finest man in the world only makes her hold on to him in love more tightly. At this point, Troy grabs Rose’s arm too tightly, and Cory comes to her defense. Troy threateningly declares that Cory now has two strikes against him, and he had better not “strike out.”
Six months later, Alberta is in the hospital about to give birth. Rose informs Troy, who cannot read, that a paper he had signed in front of a judge had committed Gabe to an institution, with half of his money earmarked to the hospital and the remaining half to Troy. A phone call from the hospital interrupts them with the news that Alberta had died giving birth to a healthy baby girl.
Three days later, Troy brings his baby home from the hospital, begging Rose for help. Rose agrees that the child is innocent and should not be punished for the sins of her father, but her agreement carries a consequence for Troy: “Okay, Troy . . . I’ll take care of your baby for you . . . this child got a mother. But you a womanless man.”
Two months later, Rose is baking cakes for a church bake sale and Troy is sitting on the porch alone drinking and singing a song about a dog named Blue. Jim visits Troy and tells him that since Troy’s promotion to become a truck driver, he has not seen him. Troy informs him that driving up front is lonely with no one to talk to. Jim declines Troy’s invitation to stay longer. Troy informs him that Lucille had told Rose about getting the refrigerator, and Jim notes that Rose had told Lucille that Troy had completed the fence. Cory comes home and tries to get by his father, who is sitting in the middle of the steps. They have a confrontation, and Troy kicks his son out of the house. Cory tells his mother that he will be back for his belongings; Troy, hearing this, says he is going to put his son’s things on the other side of the fence.
Seven years later, Cory, a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps, returns home; his father has died. Jim compliments Cory on his achievements and tells him, “Your daddy knew you had it in you.” Lyons, who has been in prison, had received permission to attend his father’s funeral. Still bitter, however, Cory informs his mother that he does not plan to attend the funeral. Rose reminds him that Troy was his father. Cory and his half sister, Raynell, strike up a conversation and begin to sing Troy’s childhood song about Old Blue, prompting Cory to change his mind and attend his father’s funeral. Gabe, who is still institutionalized, also had received permission to attend his brother’s funeral. Gabe sees this as a momentous time: He takes out his trumpet and prepares to signal Saint Peter to open the gates of Heaven for Troy.