Fences by August Wilson
Plot Summary, Characters, and Themes
Fences is a play by an African American playwright, August Wilson. Fences, in the light of its publication in 1987, won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1987 Tony Award for Best play.
The play is set in Pittsburgh, Pen Pennsylvania. Although the author never mentioned Pennsylvania directly, other places in the state were named. The play explores the racial relations in America in the early 1950s, evolving Black Americans’ experience, and other topics relating to Black Americans.
The play focuses on Troy, a 53-year-old Black man faced with the challenge of providing for his family. Troy is surrounded by his children, wife, mistress, friend, and brother, Gabriel. Gabriel is a World War II veteran with a wound to his head, which affects his thinking. He receives $3,000 monthly in support from the American government. Troy uses the money to purchase a home for his family and sends his brother to a psychiatric hospital. Tory, besides family, has a close friend, Bono, whom he met in prison; both now work together at the garbage collecting company. Moreover, he has a mistress, Alberta, whom he hides from his wife and friend.
Troy, in his prime, was a perfect baseball player, but his baseball career slowed after he spent some time in prison over a murder he committed during one of his robberies. He continued practicing baseball in prison. He played in the Negro League Baseball and hoped to play in Major League Baseball. However, the racial discrimination in the Major League was yet to be broken, stopping his dream of progressing his career to the Major League from coming true.
Hence, Troy feels the race barrier in his current place of work. It is shattered after his victorious fight against injustice in the Sanitation Company he works. No black has ever driven the garbage collecting trucks; all the black workers in the company end up as barrel lifters.
The play starts on Troy’s payday with Bono, his friend, and his co-worker at Sanitation Company. They both go on their weekly drinking ritual on their payday. While drinking in Troy’s dry backyard, Troy reveals his career and racial relations in America through his speech. He tells Bono about his courageous visit to their boss, Mr. Rand, whom he asks why black workers are never promoted to truck drivers.
Sooner, Rose and Lyons join the conversation. Lyons, Tory’s first son from another relationship and aspiring musician, has come to borrow money from Tory. He hoped to get some money since it was Tory’s payday. Troy belittles him for dedicating all his time to his music career and refusing to work. Troy believes in hard work and taking responsibility; he denies his son the help he needs, despite his promise to pay back when his girlfriend, Bonnie, who recently got employed gets paid her monthly salary.
Rose tells Troy to erect a fence to secure what’s hers, then he and Cory work on it. In the same scene, Cory breaks the news of his football scholarship to Tory and Rose. Tory is not impressed by Cory’s plan to abandon his work at A&P stores to pursue a career in football due to his fear of racial discrimination. He thinks the racial barrier will prevent Cory from being a pro football player like him, who racial discrimination stopped him from advancing his career in baseball to the Major League. Later, it was revealed that it was Tory’s age that limited his baseball career and not the racial barrier. He was over Major League age expectations at the time he got released from jail.
Troy only agrees to allow Cory to go to college and further his football career on the condition he continues working at A&P stores. Cory gave up his job immediately after he got the football scholarship. When Tory learns his son isn’t working at A&P, he told his school football coach that Cory will not continue playing. The play reaches its turning point when Cory learns of his father’s act. They argue over it, and it results in a brief fight between father and son. Consequently, Troy kicks Cory out of his home forever.
Bono suspects Troy is having an affair with another woman, Alberta. When he was certain about it, he was disappointed. He has always looked up to Troy and likes his choice of a woman. He tells Troy to find a way to tell Rose about the secret and settle with her.
Troy confesses to Rose about his secret affair with another woman, Alberta, who’s now pregnant. Rose is disappointed at him that Tory can still do that at his age.
Troy is left alone as Cory leaves forever to join the Marines and Bono discontinues communication with Troy over his infidelity to his wife, Rose. Rose remains in Troy’s home but is not dutiful to him anymore. Their relationship is over, although she adopts the daughter of Alberta, who died in childbirth, leaving behind a baby daughter, Raynell.
In the seventh year Cory left home, he visited. This coincides with the death of Troy. Because of his quarrel with Tory and the manner he kicked him out of his house, Cory refused to attend his funeral. Rose pleaded with him to attend his father’s burial; she said that not attending the burial makes him less of a man.
The play ends with Cory and the young Raynell singing Tory’s favorite blues at his funeral. Gabriel, who thinks of himself as an archangel returns and tries to play his trumpet to open the heavenly gate for his late brother, but no sounds came out. Then he dances ritually and chants. The heavenly gate eventually opens.
Father to Cory, Lyons, and Raynell. He is the husband of Rose. Troy Maxson is the protagonist of Fences, as most of the characters in the play run around him. Tory works in the sanitation department, where he specializes in lifting the garbage barrel before winning the fight against the barrier impeding him from being a truck driver. Before him, blacks only serve as barrel lifters. When he breaks the racial barrier to emerge as the first black truck driver in the Sanitation Company, he tries to forget his racial experience in baseball that prevented him from progressing to the Major League.
Troy is a hard-working 53-year-old father and husband. He believes in hard work and taking responsibility, although he is disappointed by his poor achievement after years of hard work. He was once an expert baseball player in his younger days and was a prominent player in the Negro League Baseball. He resents how racial discrimination prevented him in his prime from playing in the Major League, which would have been a turning point in his life. Later in the play, we discover that his age was responsible for his rejection, not the racial barrier. He was over the maximum age requirement for the Major League when he came out of prison.
Tory’s father was a sharecropper. He is loved and cherished by everyone as he gets away with his offensive acts. Bono, his friend, respects him due to his pleasant past in the Negro League Baseball. Bono looked up to him for inspiration till he cheated on Rose.
When Troy leaves the earth, his negative attributes haunted everyone around him. Troy is a tragic hero who takes pride in being the breadwinner of his family. To live in his illusion, he creates conflicts that affect almost other characters in the play.
He imposes his fanciful perceptions of the world on everyone and expects them to buy into his fancy and compelling stories. He takes a swipe at Lyons for stubbornly refusing to abandon his perceived ‘foreign and impractical’ Jazz music. He expects him to look for a job. He also kicks Cory out of the house for challenging him after he tells Cory’s college football team to cancel Cory’s scholarship.
Rose is a caring wife to Tory, and her son, Cory. The author names her character ‘Rose’ – a name of a flower, to symbolize care, love, and sympathy, the features she possesses as a character. Rose, unlike her husband, is realistic and hopes for a better future. She’s a devoted Christian who frequently volunteers for some church activities and influences Tory somewhat.
When Tory confessed that he cheats on her with Alberta, she estranges herself from Tory forever. Although she stays in the same home as him, she was no longer dutiful as before towards him.
Alberta dies in childbirth, and Rose doesn’t mind taking care of Alberta’s baby daughter. Troy dominates her in the marriage as he often requests she respects him as the family’s breadwinner, but she does Influence him with her realistic approach towards things.
Rose’s character contradicts Troy’s, who is more selfish and browbeats everyone to walk by his side. Rose always sides with her son, Cory. She believes in his capabilities and future in football, unlike Tory, who inhibits him with his awful past.
Cory is the hard-working son of Tory and Rose. The author introduces him as a teenager in the play, but he matures into adulthood as the play progresses. Cory is a senior high school student; he gets a good grade, so he’s given a football scholarship to go to college, where he can advance his career in football.
Unfortunately, Troy refuses to sign the permission paper that will enable him to attend college on a football scholarship. This strained the father-son relationship. Cory has support from his mother but gets none from his father, who insists he should juggle football and work at A&P stores.
Cory sees Tory as an inhibitor of his dreams and challenges him. He eventually gets kicked out of the house for eight years, only to unwillingly visit home again after the death of Troy after he joins the Marines. Even though he’s at home, he still refuses to attend Tory’s funeral. Rose persuaded him eventually.
He’s referred to as Mr. Bono or simply Bono in Fences. Bono is a close friend of Tory and a husband to Lucille, who, as a matter of Bono’s closeness to Tory’s family, is now a friend to Rose. Bono met Tory in prison. They were friends for over 30 years and the only character in the play who remembers Tory’s good days at Negro League. He respects Tory and idolizes him. However, disagrees with Tory’s relationship with Alberta. Bono and Tory, besides being friends, are co-workers; they both work in the Sanitation Department. They met on Fridays at Tory’s backyard for their weekly drinking ritual.
He’s Tory’s brother and a World War Two veteran. The war left an injury on his head, and a metal plate was implanted in his head in the course of his treatment, leaving him mentally incapacitated. His mental injury makes him act juvenile, carrying a basket and a stick around the neighborhood. He thinks of himself as an archangel who opens the heavenly gate for Saint Peter with his trumpet.
Gabe often gets cheques from the government as maintenance for his injury from the war; Tory purchases a house with a part of the money. In the closing episode, Gabe gets a new apartment for himself, weighing down Tory.
He is Troy’s first son from his previous relationship before he met Rose. Lyons devotes his time to jazz music, and his complicated relationship with his father originates from his refusal to do other things besides music.
Lyons struggles to make an end meet. In the rest of the play, he relies heavily on his working girlfriend, Bonnie, for survival. He usually visits Troy on Fridays, his payday, for financial assistance.
Alberta’s daughter to Troy. The author introduced her as a child in dire need of care after her mother died during her birth. Rose reconciles with herself not to leave Troy to look after the child.
He’s both the boss of Troy and Bono. He doubts Troy would ever win his fight for the Sanitation Company to allow black workers to drive instead of retiring lifting barrels of garbage.
She’s Tory’s mistress. She died in the birth of Raynell.
Fences is a play by a Black American author, August Wilson. The author explores the themes of barriers, racial relations in America, responsibility, and love.
The author begins the play with Troy realizing the impacts of race in his life and tells his intimate friend and co-worker, Bono, about how racism rife in America has stunted his progress. Troy is always up in his arms to fight for his right. In his workplace at the Sanitation Company, he queried his boss, Mr. Rand, on why black people are never allowed to drive the garbage truck. Why do they work as barrel lifters till retirement? Mr. Rand, a white man, sees Troy’s fight for the inclusion of blacks in the strategic positions in the Sanitation Company as a vain pursuit till Troy defies him to emerge as the first black truck driver in the company.
Although Troy wins his fight for equality in his workplace, his fear of racism in corporate places inhibits him and his family from thinking Progressively. Troy disbelieves the world is fast-evolving, unlike his wife, Rose. He dwells on his experience in the Negro League, where racism thwarted him from progressing to the Major League, although readers learn his age is the main factor that stopped him from playing in the Major League and not racism, as he claimed.
Troy thinks he was denied the silver opportunity to play in the Major League and that a black man has to be twice perfect as his white counterpart to fit into a place with the white in America.
He tries to forge a future for his sons with his experience and ends up severing his relationship with them. When Cory gets a football scholarship to go to college, Troy stops him, thinking his son is about to face the same fate he did in his baseball career.
For him, he’s protecting his son from having an experience like he’s in the Major League, which will end shattering his life. He thinks about the racism in football, which he strongly believes will prevent Cory from being a pro football player. After he tries bullying Cory into his shoe but to no avail, he kicks him out of his home.
Responsibility and Caring
Tory, from the beginning, does not joke with the act of responsibility; he thinks his sons— Lyons and Cory— need to ditch their fanciful dreams and get a job that will make them a man.
Tory’s firm stance on his sons being responsible has a link to his father, who died as a poor sharecropper and never cared about his family a bit. His father was toxic to him, making him run away from home at age 14 after his father almost beat him to death for walking around with a girl— his crush— whom his father still raped in the end. That action revealed the beasts in his father, prompting him to run away from home even in the face of hunger and no shelter.
He worked himself out of poverty; at least he’s better than his father, who never owned a house of his own—although he is not always proud of buying a home with Gabe’s check.
When Cory asks why he doesn’t love him, he lets him know he shelters him and feeds him every day at his age. He believes that is love.
We see Troy shy away from responsibility by finding love in Alberta, whom he comes to love more than his wife, although secretly, and sees freedom in her. However, after Alberta dies in giving birth, Troy runs to Rose after being overwhelmed with the responsibility of taking care of the baby daughter left to his care by the late Alberta.
The Fence embodies the conflicting desires of Rose and Troy. Rose wants a fence to fence in her family and keep danger out of her family. Troy, in the beginning, questions Rose’s strong desire to fence her home, and Bono quickly gives him a satisfying answer. He tells him that Rose needs to fence in her family as she perceives she’s gradually losing her husband to the dangerous world.
However, the fence meant a different thing to Troy. He has worked tirelessly throughout the play to build the fence, but it appears as a bulwark to him for numerous reasons. At one point, he threatens to throw Cory’s property out of the fence; this connotes that Cory is counted out of the family’s care and love.
He later uses the fence as an object of separation between him and death.
In the play, Troy betrayed everyone around him. He betrayed his wife, son, and friend. Raynell and Lyons are the only people around him who escaped his betrayal because they didn’t care about him.
Firstly, Tory betrays Rose by having an affair with Alberta, despite his agreement to build the fence to protect his loved ones. Rose pays him back by refusing to accept him into her life forever, although she lived with him, but not as a couple. Rose reconsiders staying in the same house with Troy because of Raynell, whose mother died during her birth.
Secondly, Troy betrays his son, Cory, by not permitting him to play football or attend college on a football scholarship. He told the coach to stop Cory from playing and stop the recruiters from trying him.
Thirdly, he betrays his friend —Bono—who idolizes him. Troy has been friends with Bono for over 30 years. Bono looks up to him as a role model but is disappointed when he learnt Troy is cheating on Rose. Bono admires how Rose loves her family and protects it from harm. When he suspects Troy is having an affair, he confronts him over it, but Troy denies having anything to do with Alberta. He betrayed his friend again after getting promoted to the truck driver. He begins to distance himself from Bono after getting the promotion he thinks he doesn’t deserve, despite fighting fiercely for it for years. As a result, Bono discontinues his friendship with him.
In the end, he betrays his brother, Gabriel (Gabe), who’s down from a mental illness caused by the World War Two injury on his head. Gabe behaves childishly and is unable to control the cheques he gets from the government. Troy has always kicked against institutionalizing Gabe but later changes his mind to benefit from his brother’s check. Before now, he has used a part of the check to purchase a house where the play unfolds.
Theme of Death
Troy is obsessed with death; he talks about it in different stages of the play. Apart from his fictional encounter with Mr. Death, whom he claims he wrestled with a time past, there are times death occurred physically in the book. Alberta dies tragically, followed by Troy after his years of trying to barricade death from himself with the fence. Troy strongly believes everyone will die one day, but everyone should brace up to fight against it at some point.
Troy’s reasons for echoing Rose’s call to erect a fence in their home are a result of his desire to fence out death from himself, in contrast to Rose’s desire – she wants to fence in her loved ones and keep out dangerous people from her family or home.
Another character obsessed with death in the play is Gabe, although he expresses his view on death childishly or publicly due to his weakened mental state of reasoning. He often parrots the Christian afterlife and thinks of himself as an angel assigned to open the heavenly gate to the chosen few people. The play ends with Gabriel blowing the trumpet to open heaven for the chosen people. We learn the Heavenly gate opens at the end of the play.