The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.

The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Fences depicts the quiet collapse of an ordinary African American family in the late 1950’s. The breakdown of Troy Maxson’s family centers on the struggle between father and son over conflicting visions of black identity, aspirations, and values. The first act presents Troy as a dutiful provider for his wife, Rose, and his son, Cory; he has steady employment as a sanitation worker. Troy’s past, however, has left him a scarred man—a man of boundless energy and boisterous bitterness. Troy’s childhood was soured by a stern and overbearing father. Troy experienced racism as an African American athlete in the late 1950’s: Although he had proven he had the ability to play professional baseball, he was prevented by his color from playing in the major leagues. Frustrated throughout his young life, Troy was driven to crime and ended in jail. There is no aspect of his life in which he does not feel confined—fenced in. Because Troy is unable to rid himself of the pain and poverty of his past, his adult life is constricted. Throughout the play there is a silent visual reminder of this constriction—an unfinished fence that Troy has been building around his backyard.

The tension between Troy and his younger son, Cory, in the first act is one among several important elements of the play. Troy is both bitterly jealous and protective of Cory, who is being recruited by a local college for a football scholarship. Troy refuses to let Cory accept the scholarship because he is afraid that Cory will come to know the hurt his father has experienced in the world of sports. Equally important, Troy is overwhelmed with envy: What if Cory could, in fact, overcome the barriers of race and become a professional athlete? Constricted by these feelings, Troy invites the wrath of Cory, who eventually joins the Marines as a way to redress the wrongs which typify the fenced-in feeling Cory experiences with his father. Troy remains unyielding.

Act 2, scene 1, turns on a conflict between Troy and his wife, Rose. Troy tells Rose about his affair with a younger woman, who is about to give birth to his child. Troy’s attempt to comfort Rose by explaining that the other woman allows him “to be a part of myself that I ain’t never been” is futile. Rose rejects Troy’s explanation: “Ain’t nothing you can say, Troy. Ain’t no way of explaining that.” Rose is deeply hurt, and the chance for any future happiness for the couple is permanently impaired. Troy’s mistress dies after giving birth to Troy’s baby. In an act of courage, Rose assumes the responsibility of rearing Troy’s baby, an act which might well symbolize the pliancy of the African American mother who often must hold the African American family together. The husband-wife conflict in Fences contrasts the wounded male egos of men like Troy with the courageous and pragmatic strength of women like Rose.

Troy’s son Lyons (by a former wife) fares no better with Troy than does his half-brother Cory. The fact that Troy himself was an abused son makes him an uncaring father to Lyons, who, like Troy, ends in jail. Even when Troy appears to be at his best, there is an air of ambivalence about him. While Troy’s attitude toward his brother, Gabriel, a brain-damaged World War II veteran who lives under the illusion that he is the angel Gabriel, is generally one of caring and concern, Troy exploits him nevertheless. When Gabriel receives compensation from the government for his disability, Troy uses the money to buy a house. Gabriel cannot stay with Troy and his family because of Troy’s compelling need for self-justification. Troy’s purest, or least ambivalent, feelings are for Bono, a longtime drinking friend and colleague; yet, in their sober moments together, a bitter wariness exists between them.

Troy Maxson’s life begins to turn completely sour and grim when he and Cory have a serious physical altercation. At the conclusion of act 2, scene 1, Cory comes to the defense of his mother as Rose struggles to get away from Troy and the news of his extramarital affair. Cory approaches Troy from behind and grabs him; Cory and Troy fight, and Troy is beaten. The scene ends as Troy warns Cory: “All right. That’s strike two. You stay away from around me, boy. Don’t you strike out. You living with a full count. Don’t you strike out.” Troy and Cory’s first physical altercation leads to their final confrontation in act 2, scene 4. Cory returns home for his belongings, and Troy challenges him, backing Cory against a tree. Cory picks up a bat to defend himself, but he does not hit his father because Rose rushes out into the yard and pleads with him to stop. Troy’s fragile male ego is destroyed, and the scene ends as Troy speaks words that symbolize his feelings of emasculation and utter defeat: “I can’t taste nothing. Hallelujah! I can’t taste nothing no more!”

Act 2, scene 5, brings all Troy Maxson’s innocent victims together as they prepare for the funeral of their rebellious yet responsible father, husband, brother, provider. Troy died suddenly, the audience is told, while swinging a baseball bat in his backyard. Lyons receives a temporary leave from jail, and Cory gets a furlough to attend their father’s funeral. While Rose, Lyons, Gabriel, and Troy’s daughter Raynell all seem to express a genuine attitude of amiability and fondness for Troy, Cory remains decidedly ambivalent in his feelings toward him. The play ends with Gabriel’s call to Saint Peter to open the gates of heaven and let Troy enter.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Maxson home

Maxson home. African American home in an unspecified city, possibly Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Maxsons’ yard, which is an extension of their house, represents Troy Maxson’s ambivalent feelings: his spirit, large like his body, desires the rootedness of home but resists its limitations. The responsibilities of his family bind him even more closely than did the prison in which he has spent fifteen years. The yard keeps Troy close to home, yet is not as confining as the house itself. The unfenced yard also signifies the era of the play, a time when African Americans were soon to loosen the bonds of some legal and social restraints, with the turbulent Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s.

As Troy’s friend Bono comments, “some people build fences to keep people out . . . and other people build fences to keep people in.” The partially built fence surrounding the Maxsons’ yard represents the conflicts of the play. Rose, Troy’s wife, wants a fence to keep her world safe, to keep the family close, but to Troy, the fence represents confinement, so he has delayed its completion. The bond between Rose and Troy, like the incomplete fence, fails to prevent Troy’s straying with another woman. Troy’s inner fences and the fences that the white world has built around him trap him in his meager-paying job. The literal fence, that Troy and Cory were to have built together, could have strengthened their relationship, but Troy’s procrastination and Cory’s dreams of winning a football scholarship prevent this outcome. However, Troy, too, desires to keep things out; he wants to keep out Death, with whom he had once wrestled and won. Ironically, Troy completes the literal fence after his complete alienation from his wife and son, and his fence finally fails to keep out Death.

Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

August Wilson introduces his audience to the primary conflict in Fences at the very beginning of the play. All the characters are introduced in act 1, and their interrelationships are explained; the conflict between father and son is imminent. In Troy’s stubborn effort to prevent his own harsh history from repeating itself with his son Cory, Troy imposes his legacy on Cory’s dreams and aspirations. Heinous and misguided as Troy’s anger is, it does not seem irrational, because Wilson makes the audience understand the facts of Troy’s life. In a gripping speech (act 1, scene 4), Troy takes the audience along every painful mile of his “walking blues.” Fleeing from the rural racism of the South only to encounter the impoverished slums of the North, Troy Maxson epitomizes the African American males of his generation who were psychologically scarred by their social status: They were neither slaves nor free men.

Act 2, scene 1, further complicates the conflict between Troy and Cory, as Wilson creates conflict among other characters. The turning point of the play occurs when Rose attacks Troy for crossing her boundaries. This crucial moment changes the direction of the action and paves the way for the complications to unwind. The process by which Cory and the others reconcile themselves with Troy—and retrieve the pride he lost—is manifested in the play’s affecting denouement: It can only be accomplished after Troy’s death. Though the conclusion aims to reestablish a stable situation so that the drama may end, the audience is left with feelings of ambivalence. This ambivalence is the hallmark of Wilson’s achievement; he makes the audience understand Troy Maxson’s behavior without ever resorting to sentimentalizing him.

While Wilson’s tableau-like staging could serve any front-porch play, his clever use of the fence is another way in which the play achieves its effect. The fence provides a silent commentary on the action taking place all around it. Almost all August Wilson’s humor, poetry, and social observation somehow center on the fence. The tensions created by the image of the fence heighten the play’s conflict and invite the audience to participate in an emotional identification with the characters, who demand that the audience take sides in their disagreements.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

James Earl Jones as the failed baseball player Troy Maxson, a role he originated Published by Gale Cengage

Professional Athletics
By 1957, the year in which Fences is set, black athletes had become an integrated part...

(The entire section is 908 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

A major division in a drama. In Greek plays the sections of the drama signified by the appearance of the chorus...

(The entire section is 799 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1957: Ku Klux Klansmen accuse Alabama grocery-chain truck driver Willie Edwards, 25, of having made remarks to a white woman...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

What is the nature of the conflict between Cory and Troy? Research the options for black athletes who were recruited by colleges in the 1950s...

(The entire section is 271 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969) offers an autobiographical look at the American black experience. This book...

(The entire section is 232 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Barnes, Clive. "Fiery 'Fences'" in the New York Post, March 27,1987.

Birdwell, Christine....

(The entire section is 540 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Awkward, Michael. “‘The Crookeds with the Straights’: Fences, Race, and the Politics of Adaptation.” In May All Your Fences Have Gates, edited by Alan Nadel. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994. Discusses what happens when a play such as Fences becomes adapted into film. Includes Wilson’s suggestions concerning directorial qualifications and claim of ownership over language production and representation of blackness.

Berkowitz, Gerald M. “August Wilson.” In American Drama of the Twentieth Century. London: Longman, 1992. Troy’s tragedy is that, although he represents the first generation of black Americans to progress into the middle class through pride and determination, his instinct is to preserve and consolidate what he has.

Birdwell, Christine. “Death as a Fastball on the Outside Corner: Fences’ Troy Maxson and the American Dream.” Aethlon 8 (Fall, 1990): 16-25.

Brown, Chip. “The Light in August.” Esquire 111 (April, 1989): 116. Wilson emphasizes black life on its own terms, not in confrontation with the white system. Parts of Fences may be inspired by Wilson’s uneasy relationship with his stepfather.

Fishman, Joan. “Developing His Song: August Wilson’s Fences.” In August Wilson: A Casebook, edited by Marilyn Elkins. New York: Garland, 1994.

Freedman, Samuel G. “A Voice from the Streets.” The New York Times Magazine 136 (March 15, 1987): 36. Fences reflects Wilson’s concern with legacy.

Gordon, Joanne. “Wilson and Fugard: Politics and Art.” In August Wilson: A Casebook, edited by Marilyn Elkins. New York: Garland, 1994. Seeks to interpret Fences by emphasizing its universal qualities as well as concentrating on the political significance of the piece in terms of the overt political philosophy of white South African artist Athol Fugard.

Harrison, Paul Carter. “August Wilson’s Blues Poetics.” In Three Plays, by August Wilson. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991. Unlike Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), Troy has no respect for the limitations imposed on him by a hostile world. Troy’s declarations of patriarchal au-thority resonate in the hearts and minds of most African Americans.

Henderson, Heather. “Building Fences: An Interview with Mary Alice and James Earl Jones.” Theater 16 (Summer/Fall, 1985): 67-70. Mary Alice and James Earl Jones performed the roles, respectively, of Rose and Troy Maxson when Fences opened at the Yale Repertory Theater. In this interview, they discuss the development of their characters, both as directed by Lloyd Richards and as guided by their own spontaneity.

Kester, Gunilla Theander. “Approaches to Africa: The Poetics of Memory and the Body in Two August Wilson Plays.” In August Wilson: A Casebook, edited by Marilyn Elkins. New York: Garland, 1994. Examines how Fences and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1986) highlight the metaphoric relationship between black American history and the black body. Shows how bringing the past into the present often leaves Wilson’s characters trapped in a sense of futility.

Pereira, Kim. August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Reed, Ishmael. “August Wilson: The Dramatist as Bearer of Tradition.” In Writin’ Is Fightin’: Thirty-seven Years of Boxing on Paper. New York: Atheneum, 1988. Fences is informed by Wilson’s belief that a man should have responsibility for his family.

Shannon, Sandra G. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1995.

Shannon, Sandra G. “The Good Christian’s Come and Gone: The Shifting Role of Christianity in August Wilson Plays.” MELUS 16 (Fall, 1989): 127-142. Discusses how some of Wilson’s characters, such as Levee (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Troy Maxson (Fences), Herald Loomis (Joe Turner’s Come and Gone), and Boy Willie (The Piano Lesson), impose their authority and overshadow other characters. In their abandonment of Christianity and withdrawal from the religion of their ancestors, they construct their own self-serving and liberating dogma.