The central action of Fences unfolds in the space of a few months in the late 1950’s; it is 1957 when the play begins. The last scene takes place in 1965, on the day of the funeral of the protagonist, Troy Maxson. On that day, the other characters in the play come to terms with the flawed human being who has been the most powerful force in their lives. Their effort to arrive at a just understanding of this man duplicates the effort in which the play involves its audience. Fences offers a sympathetic but unsentimental portrait of its unforgettable central character.
In 1957, Troy Maxson is fifty-three years old. He has been married for eighteen years to Rose, whose devotion to him has not necessarily blinded her to the more difficult traits of his character. Their son, Cory, is a high school senior, and his accomplishments on the football field have led to his being sought by a recruiter from a college in North Carolina. Troy also has a thirty-four-year-old son, Lyons, by a previous marriage. Lyons’s visits to his father are generally motivated by a desire to borrow money.
Troy also has a brother, Gabe, who as a result of a war injury carries a metal plate in his head; in his damaged mind, he carries the conviction that he is the Archangel Gabriel. Troy feels guilty that money paid to Gabe for his disability has made it possible for Troy to buy the house in which he now lives. Troy has provided Gabe with a roof over his head, but Gabe has recently moved out to Miss Pearl’s rooming house, desiring increased independence.
Troy’s past emerges in the course of the play. At the age of fourteen, after a showdown with a brutal father, Troy set out on his own, hitching his way north to Pittsburgh. With no job and no place to live, he stole to survive. After the birth of Lyons, it seemed he had to steal even more. After killing a man in the course of a robbery, Troy was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, where he developed a gift for baseball. By the time Troy was released from prison, his wife had gone, taking Lyons with her. Troy married Rose but continued to dream of playing baseball in the major leagues. He was born too soon, however, for that dream to be possible: By the time Jackie Robinson was playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Troy was in his mid-forties.
Troy now works for the sanitation department, and he has dared to question the practice of assigning the responsibility of driving the trucks to white workers, while black men do the lifting. His friend Bono listens patiently to Troy’s complaints, but Troy now has something else on his mind. Troy has been giving his attention to Alberta, who works at Taylor’s, a local hangout. He claims there is no harm in his conduct. Troy used to run around with women, but that was before he married Rose.
Troy is skeptical about his son’s football ambitions. Troy’s experiences with baseball have taught him that young black men have no future in major-league sports. In addition, Cory’s obsession with football is leading him to forget his chores, including helping Troy build the fence Rose has asked for, and to neglect his job at the A&P. In fact, Troy has obstinately refused to talk seriously about signing the paper that would allow Cory to accept the football scholarship he has been offered. He is angry that Cory has cut back on his hours at the A&P; he is now, Troy understands, working only on weekends in order to give himself time for football. Troy is so hard in his refusals that Cory asks Troy why he has never liked him. Troy asserts that liking is not the issue. Cory is his son, and he looks after his son because that is a man’s responsibility.
Two weeks later, Troy is promoted to driver. Bono notices that he has stopped by Taylor’s on his way home to give the good news to Alberta. Troy has no driver’s license, but he is not worried. He has other matters on his mind. He has learned that Cory has been lying to him; Cory has not been working at the A&P at all. As a result, Troy has ordered the coach to dismiss Cory from the football team, thus killing Cory’s dream of college and all its promises. Cory accuses Troy of being motivated by fear; he is afraid that his son will turn out to be better than he is. That, says Troy, is “strike one.”
The following day, after bailing out his brother Gabe, whose habit of breaking into song when the spirit moves him has led to an arrest for disturbing the peace, Troy tells Rose that Alberta is carrying his baby. He tries to explain that his relationship with Alberta does not imply any rejection of Rose, to whom he has otherwise been faithful for eighteen years. With Alberta, he can momentarily escape the pains, pressures, and disappointments of his life. Rose reminds him that she has shared those pains and has not looked for her own escape. As the anger of the moment grows, Troy grabs Rose’s arm. When Cory comes to his mother’s defense, Troy tells him that that is “strike two.”
Alberta dies giving birth to Troy’s daughter. Troy begs Rose to take care of the child, who is, after all, innocent. Rose agrees. The child will have a mother. However, Rose tells Troy that he will be a womanless man from then on.
At work, Troy is doing well. He has been promoted; he is now picking up white people’s garbage. Gabe, however, is now in an institution. Troy carries the guilt of having signed the commitment papers, an act all the more troubling because it means that some of the pension money that is rightfully Gabe’s now comes directly to Troy. Cory, in the wake of Troy’s infidelity, now treats his father with open disrespect, telling Troy he no longer counts. This provokes a struggle in which Troy manages to prevail. There is no longer any hope of reconciliation between the two men, and Cory leaves home.
He returns on the day of Troy’s funeral in 1965. Troy’s daughter Raynell, now seven, meets her brother for the first time. Lyons is there, too, released for the occasion from the workhouse, where he is serving time for cashing other people’s checks. Cory, now a corporal in the Marines, tells his mother that he will not attend the funeral. Rose tells Cory that he will not become a man by disrespecting his father. Troy had many faults, she says, but he always meant to do good more than he meant to do harm. Cory does not directly answer what his mother has said, but he tells Raynell to get ready so they will not be late for the funeral.
Gabe has come with his trumpet to blow open the gates of heaven for his brother’s arrival. The trumpet has no mouthpiece, and when he raises it to his lips, no sound comes out. On the verge of an awful realization, Gabe instead begins a dance and something like a song. As he finishes his dance, he is satisfied that the gates of heaven stand open for Troy.