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.