Fences August Wilson

Fences (1986) is a play by award-winning poet and playwright August Wilson. For its 1987 theatrical run, Fences won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play. Fences explores the evolving challenges of the Black community and their attempt to build a safe home in a racially stratified 1950s urban America.

Fences August Wilson Fences August Wilson

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Table of contents

    Fences by August Wilson: Setting

    Fences is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1950s. The entire play takes place entirely at the Maxson home.

    When Wilson was a child, the Hill District neighborhood in Pittsburgh was historically comprised of Black and working-class people. Wilson wrote ten plays, and each takes place in a different decade. The collection is called The Century Cycle or The Pittsburgh Cycle. Nine of his ten Century Cycle plays are set in the Hill District. Wilson spent his teenage years at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, reading and studying Black authors and history. His in-depth knowledge of historical details helped create the world of Fences.

    Fences, August Wilson's childhood home, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Hill District is where August Wilson sets most of his American Century plays.

    Fences by August Wilson: Characters

    The Maxson family are the main characters in Fences with key supporting roles, such as family friends and a secret lover.

    CharacterExplanation
    Troy MaxsonHusband to Rose and father of the Maxson boys, Troy is a stubborn lover and tough parent. Broken by the racist barriers to achieving his professional baseball dreams, he believes Black ambition is harmful in a white world. He openly discourages any aspiration from his family that threatens his worldview. His time in prison further cements his cynicism and hardened exterior.
    Rose MaxsonTroy’s wife Rose is the mother of the Maxson household. Often she tempers Troy’s embellishments of his life and openly disagrees with him. She values Troy’s strengths and overlooks his flaws. In contrast to Troy, she is kind and empathetic to her children’s aspirations.
    Cory MaxsonThe son of Troy and Rose, Cory is optimistic about his future, unlike his father. He desires love and affection from Troy, who instead performs his fatherly duties with a rigid toughness. Cory learns to advocate for himself and respectfully disagree with his father.
    Lyons MaxsonLyon is a son from a previous unnamed relationship of Troy. He aspires to be a musician. However, passionate practice does not drive him. He seems more enamored with the lifestyle than becoming technically proficient.
    Gabriel MaxsonGabrial is Troy’s brother. He sustained a head injury while away at war. Believing he has been reincarnated as a saint, he frequently speaks about judgment day. He often claims to see demonic dogs that he chases away.
    Jim BonoHis loyal friend and devotee, Jim admires Troy's strengths. He aspires to be strong and hardworking like Troy. Unlike the Maxsons, he indulges the fantastical stories of Troy.
    AlbertaTroy’s secret lover, Alberta is mostly spoken about through other characters, principally Troy and Jim. Troy ends up having a child with her.
    RaynellShe is the child born to Troy and Alberta. Taken in by Rose, Raynell's infantile vulnerability expands her conception of family beyond biological ties.

    Fences by August Wilson: Summary

    The play opens with a description of the setting. It’s a Friday in 1957, and Troy, 53, is spending time with his friend Jim of nearly thirty years. The men who work for a garbage collection agency have gotten paid. Troy and Jim meet weekly to have drinks and talk, with Troy mostly speaking.

    We learn how much Jim is the “follower” in their friendship, as he mostly listens to Troy and admires him.

    Troy has recently confronted his supervisor about the racial discrepancy between the garbage collectors and the garbage truck drivers. He’s noticed only white men drive the trucks, while Black men pick up the garbage. He’s told to bring the issue to the attention of their union.

    Jim brings up Alberta, warning Troy that he’s been looking at her more than he should. Troy denies any extramarital relationship with her, while the men discuss how attractive they find her. Meanwhile, Rose enters the front porch where the men are sitting. She shares about Cory being recruited for football. Troy is dismissive and voices his desire that Cory pursues more reliable trades to avoid the racial discrimination that Troy believes ended his athletic career before it started. Lyons shows up asking for money. Troy at first refuses but gives in after Rose insists.

    Lyons is Troy’s older son from another marriage who resorts to committing crimes to stay afloat.

    The next morning, Rose is singing and hanging clothes. Troy expresses dismay that Cory went to practice without doing his chores. Gabriel, Troy’s brother who has a brain injury and a psychosis disorder, comes by selling imaginary fruit. Rose suggests that Gabriel be readmitted to a psychiatric hospital, which Troy feels would be cruel. He expresses guilt about managing Gabriel’s injury compensation money, which they used to help buy a house.

    Later, Cory arrives home and finishes up his chores. Troy calls him outside to help build the fence. Cory wants to sign the offer to play college football from a recruiter. Troy orders Cory to secure work first or he is forbidden to play football. After Cory leaves, Rose, having overheard the conversation, tells Troy that things have changed since his youth. While racism is still prevalent in America, the barriers to play professional sports have loosened, and teams are looking for players of talent — regardless of race. Nevertheless, Troy holds steadfast to his convictions.

    Fences, a theater production set, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Because the play is set entirely in the Maxson house, the audience is given an inside look into the family members' daily lives.

    Two weeks later, Cory leaves for a football teammate's house, against Rose’s wishes. Troy and Jim are spending their weekly evening together, as he shares news about his promotion from garbage collector to truck driver. Lyons comes to pay back the money he borrowed. Troy learns that Cory hasn’t been working and decides not to sign any contracts for him. Gabriel comes by, sharing his usual apocalyptic delusions. Troy shares for the first time the details of a difficult childhood — an abusive father and how he ran away from home as a young teen. Lyons asks Troy to see his performance tonight, but Troy declines. Everyone departs for dinner.

    How does Troy usually respond when his loved ones ask for his affection?

    The next morning, Troy continues to build the fence with Jim’s help. Jim voices his concern about Troy spending time with Alberta. Troy insists that everything is okay, and joins Rose inside after Jim leaves. He confesses to Rose that he’s expecting a baby with Alberta. Rose feels betrayed and explains that she isn’t appreciated by Troy. The conversation escalates, and Troy grabs Rose’s arm, hurting her. Cory arrives and intervenes, besting his father, who verbally reprimands him after.

    Six months later, Rose catches Troy heading to the yard. They have hardly spoken since he confessed the affair. Rose wants Troy to reaffirm his commitment to her. Gabriel has been recommitted to the hospital. They receive a phone call and learn that Alberta has died during childbirth, but the baby survived. Troy confronts Mr. Death, a personification of death, and insists he will win the battle. Three days later, Troy begs Rose to take in his newborn daughter. She reluctantly agrees but tells him they are no longer together.

    Personification: when a concept, idea, or nonhuman thing is given human-like attributes.

    Two months later, Lyons stops by to drop off the money he owes. Rose cares for Raynell, the daughter of Troy and Alberta. Troy arrives, and she coldly informs him his dinner is waiting to be heated up. He dejectedly sits and drinks on the porch. Cory tries to enter the house but ends up fighting with Troy. The scuffle ends when Troy offers Cory a free hit, and he backs down. Troy demands he moves out, and Cory leaves. The scene ends with Troy taunting death.

    Eight years later, after Troy dies, Lyons, Jim Bono, and Raynell are all gathered at the Maxson house before attending his funeral. Cory has enlisted in the military and arrives in military dress uniform since his last argument with his father. He tells Rose he’s not coming to the funeral. She remarks how much he’s like his father and that shirking responsibilities will not make him a man. She shares how she hoped her marriage with Troy would fix her life. Instead, she watched Troy grow from her sacrifices, while she felt the love unreciprocated. Gabriel shows up, proclaiming the doors to heaven have opened, and the play ends.

    Fences by August Wilson: Themes

    The purpose of Fences is to explore change within the African American community, especially in the subsequent generation, and the obstacles to building a life and home in a predominantly white and racially stratified urban American world. Troy’s experience as a Black man does not resonate with his sons. Troy also refuses to see that their Black experience is as valid as his. Rose feels forgotten by Troy, despite all her sacrifices to build a home for them.

    The fence itself symbolizes the segregation of the Black community, but also Rose’s desire to protect her family from the outside world. Fences explore these ideas through recurring themes.

    Race Relations and Ambition

    Fences shows how racism shapes and affects opportunities for Black people. Troy experienced racial barriers to his dreams. He became a talented baseball player, but because a lesser-skilled white man would be chosen to play over him, he abandoned all hope.

    Fences, the Mill District in Pittsburgh, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Pittsburgh's industry growth in the 1940s attracted families from all over the country.

    However, progress has been made since Troy’s time. More sports teams began incorporating Black players, as made evident by Cory’s recruitment for football. Despite this, Troy refuses to see past his own experience. Even when Lyons invites him to see him play music, Troy declines to support him, feeling too old for the social scene.

    Racism and Intergenerational Trauma

    Troy’s father had even fewer opportunities in life than Troy had. Sharecropping, or working someone else’s land, was how his father made a living. He believes his father only cared about his children to the extent they could help work the land, and he believes this was the principal reason he fathered eleven children. Troy eventually runs away from home to escape his abusive father, learning to fend for himself. He values independence and wants to instill this in his sons.

    Troy does not want his sons to become like him, and he preferred not to become his father. Yet, his trauma response still perpetuates abusive behavior. In other words, the way he learned to cope with the trauma of his childhood still affects his adult behavior. Deeply hurt by the absence of parental love and compassion as a child, Troy learned to act tough and see vulnerability as a weakness.

    Often Troy's reaction to his family's wants and desires (moments of vulnerability), is cold and uncaring. He’s unapologetic about his betrayal of Rose and lacks empathy toward his sons. In turn, his sons exhibit similar behaviors. Lyons does a stint in prison, like his father. Cory refuses to attend his wedding and his mother scolds him for being arrogant like his father. In this way, the Maxson men, including Troy, are also victims of abuse despite their complicity in perpetuating it. These behaviors formed as survival mechanisms in response to racial barriers and discrimination.

    Sense of Family Duty

    What and how much does one owe to their family is another theme of Fences. Rose expresses dismay at how little in return she has received from Troy for all her sacrifices. She has remained loyal and takes care of the home. Cory has experienced a more privileged upbringing than Troy, yet is more concerned with his personal ambitions than doing his chores, or listening to his parents. Troy feels he only needs to feed and house his children. He doesn’t feel he needs to show them love. Yet, he shows compassion to his brother Gabriel by not committing him to a hospital.

    Fences by August Wilson: Quotes

    Below are examples of quotes that reflect the three themes above.

    The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway. You go on and get your book-learning, so you can work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something, get you a trade. That way you have something can’t nobody take away from you. You go on and learn how to put your hands to some good use. Besides hauling people’s garbage.”

    (Troy to Cory, Act 1, Scene 3)

    Troy is trying to protect Cory by disapproving of Cory’s football aspirations. He believes that if Cory finds a trade that everyone finds valuable, he will find a more secure life where he can insulate himself from the racist world. However, Troy wants more for his son than he had growing up. He fears they will become like him. That’s why he doesn’t offer them the same path that he took and insists on a career that isn’t his current job.

    What about me? Don’t you think it ever crossed my mind to want to know other men? That I wanted to lay up somewhere and forget about my responsibilities? That I wanted someone to make me laugh so I could feel good? . . . I gave everything I had to try and erase the doubt that you wasn’t the finest man in the world. . . . You always talking about what you give . . . and what you don’t have to give. But you take too. You take . . . and don’t even know nobody’s giving!”

    (Rose Maxson to Troy, Act 2, Scene 1)

    Rose has been supporting Troy and his life. While she challenges him at times, she mostly follows his lead and defers to him as the lead authority in the household. Once she learns about his affair with Alberta, she feels all her sacrifices have been a waste. She gave up other life dreams and ambitions to be with Troy. Part of that was cherishing his strengths while overlooking his weaknesses. She feels that it is her duty as a wife and mother to sacrifice her desires for her family. So, when Troy reveals the affair, she feels her love has not been reciprocated.

    The whole time I was growing up . . . living in his house . . . Papa was like a shadow that followed you everywhere. It weighed on you and sunk into your flesh . . . I’m just saying I’ve got to find a way to get rid of the shadow, Mama.”

    (Cory to Rose, Act 2, Scene 5)

    After Troy’s death, Cory finally expresses his relationship with him to his mother Rose. He felt the weight of his father on him at all times when he was home. Now he’s experienced years away in the military, developing his own sense of self. Now that he has returned, he does not want to attend his father’s funeral. Cory wants to avoid confronting the trauma his father passed down to him.

    Fences August Wilson - Key takeaways

    • Fences is an award-winning play by August Wilson first performed in 1985 and published in 1986.
    • It explores the changing Black community and its challenges in building a home in a racially stratified 1950s urban America.
    • Fences takes place in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in the 1950s.
    • The fence symbolizes segregation but also protection from the outside world.
    • Fences explores themes of race relations and ambition, racism and intergenerational trauma, and the sense of family duty.

    References

    1. Fig. 2 - A photo of Scott Bradley's set design for August Wilson's Fences in the Angus Bowmer Theatre (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:OSF_Bowmer_Theater_Set_for_Fences.jpg) by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival staff photographer (n/a) is licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Fences August Wilson

    What is Fences by August Wilson about?

    Fences by August Wilson is about a Black family and the obstacles they must overcome to build a home.

    What is the purpose of Fences by August Wilson?

    The purpose of Fences by August Wilson is to explore the Black family experience and how it changes through subsequent generations.

    What does the fence symbolize in Fences by August Wilson?

    The fence in Fences by August Wilson symbolizes the segregation of the Black community, but also the desire to build a home that protects one from the outside racist world.

    What is the setting of Fences by August Wilson? 

    Fences by August Wilson is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in the 1950s.

    What are the themes of Fences by August Wilson?

    The themes of Fences by August Wilson are race relations and ambition, racism and intergenerational trauma, and sense of family duty.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who is Troy Maxson?

    Unlike Troy, Rose is

    In contrast to Troy, Cory is

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