August Wilson ranks as one of the most significant voices in contemporary American theater. His plays, which reveal a remarkable talent to particularize the African American experience, simultaneously create a universal appeal. The centerpiece of his prolific writing career is a ten-play cycle in which he chronicles the lives of African Americans living in different decades of the twentieth century. Wilson’s plays reflect his rhetorical aims to use art to change the relationship between blacks and society and to make clear that the culture of black America “exists and that it is capable of offering sustenance.”
Fences, the second contribution to his ten-play cycle, earned Wilson a Pulitzer Prize in drama in 1987, as well as other awards. This two-act drama, conventionally structured, focuses on the lives of the Troy Maxson family, endeavoring to survive in a northern urban setting that is inhospitable and impoverishing. Not unlike the southern environment from which they came, this new setting is exploitive and is poised to wreak havoc on their aspirations and identities. The playwright’s tragic sense about the influence of environment on the human spirit is most evident in the characterization of the protagonist, Troy, who falls from grace in the eyes of his wife, sons, and best friend. However, Troy’s characterization is developed sympathetically to advance the play’s concern regarding the interrelationship of responsibility, family, and personal fulfillment.
As with Wilson’s other plays, poetry influences the style of Fences. Wilson relies on the metaphor to give his plays direction. Metaphors of the blues, baseball, and the past are interwoven into the development of plot—the refusal to cave under the adverse circumstances of life, life as a game in which one may land safely on base as well as strike out, and the relationship of ancestors, especially black fathers, to current generations. Still, the metaphor meeting the playwright’s criterion of driving the play forward appears as the play’s title: Fences.
Wilson uses the fence metaphor to interweave the themes of protection and barriers. In act 1, scene 2, Rose sings the chorus to “Jesus, Be a Fence Around Me,” which is a petition for her protection. In act 2, scene 1, both Cory and Troy wonder why Rose wants the fence built. Jim explains that a fence may have a double function: To keep others out, or in. He concludes that Rose is trying to hold on to her loved ones. In spite of Rose’s effort to be secure, Troy’s extramarital affair with Alberta renders her unprotected with the realization that her husband of eighteen years betrayed her. To survive this broken trust, she seeks protection in the church and seeks fulfillment in her role as a mother.
While a barrier between husband and wife gives poignancy to Fences, the walls between fathers and sons foster the major conflicts between generations. Wilson’s treatment of problems between father and son shows that their conflicts emanate frequently from barriers in society. Troy’s father, for example, can never work hard enough to avoid being in debt because his work ethic is insufficient to combat the injustice of the sharecropping system. The barrier erected to disallow Troy’s father to earn a just wage contributes to his hostile relationship with Troy and other family members. In turn, once Troy migrates to a northern setting, he encounters racial barriers that prohibit blacks from playing baseball in the major leagues. Relegated to a job as a garbage collector, he observes and eventually protests the lack of opportunity for blacks to be drivers.
Intolerant of any sport as a career for his son Cory, Troy creates a barrier in the father-son relationship when he denies Cory the opportunity to pursue his dream to attend college on a football scholarship. In contrast, the occasional barrier between Lyons and Troy emanates from Troy’s incarceration, which had prevented him from being with Lyons during Lyons’s formative years. In turn, Troy frowns on Lyons’s upbringing and on Lyons’s desire to be a jazz musician, a career that does not enable him to be the financial and, thereby, responsible head of his household.
While the play centers on Troy, the characterization of Gabe, his younger brother, reflects complexity and significance. He is the only one of eleven children with whom Troy is in touch. Like his brother Troy, who engages in fiction making through storytelling and modifying the truth, Gabe’s world is etched by fantasy. His fantasies, however, are more serious; he is trapped in a world of illusion. Wilson links three important symbols to Gabe’s characterization—wound, key, and trumpet. These three symbols are integral to the play’s meaning regarding survival, responsibility, flexibility, decision making, and the family unit.
Gabe, a brain-damaged veteran of World War II, has a metal plate in his head. Misunderstood and perceived as threatening by outsiders, he is eventually placed in a mental institution. His war wound symbolizes the experiences of others in the play who have been wounded by rejection, injustice, misunderstanding, or neglect. His wound, however, does not obviate his need to maintain a semblance of personal worth. He delights in having a key to his two rooms at Miss Pearl’s. The key represents freedom and the desire to maintain dignity in challenging circumstances, even when it involves selling damaged produce. His decision to leave Troy’s home to live independently places Troy in financial difficulty, but Gabe has learned the same lessons about manhood and responsibility that Troy has learned from their father.
Gabe, named after the angel Gabriel, is characterized through biblical imagery and symbolism. He is convinced that his role is to blow his trumpet, signaling Saint Peter to open the gates of Heaven. During the last scene of the play, in which all family members are gathered for Troy’s funeral, Gabe attempts to blow his trumpet. After much effort, he is unable to produce a sound. Undaunted, he begins to dance and sing, a song that sounds like howling. When he finishes, the gates of Heaven open and his brother enters. With Troy’s redemption, the play comes full circle, for Wilson’s epitaph—the conscious decision to forgive and to move forward—provides a clue about black culture and humanity in general.