Fences by August Wilson – Summary and Themes

Fences by August Wilson

The play Fences by August Wilson was written and performed in 1985, featuring James Earl Jones in the starring role of Troy Maxson. It was readapted in 2010 and made into a film in 2016 starring Denzel Washington as Troy and Viola Davis as Rose. The play is a part of Wilson’s Century Cycle of plays covering one decade of African American life during the twentieth century, taking us back to the 1950s, when African Americans were first beginning to make inroads into white society.

Troy Maxson, the protagonist of Fences, is a tough man. He has got to be in order to survive. Troy Maxson grew up in an America where being proud and black meant facing pressures that might crush a man, body and spirit. But the 1950s are giving way to the new spirit of liberation in the 1960s, a spirit that is changing the world Troy Maxson has learned to deal with the only way he knows how, a spirit that is making him a stranger, angry and afraid, in a world he never knew and to a wife and son, he understands less and less.

Troy Maxson has been married to Rose for eighteen years. She is his second wife. He lives with Rose and his teenage son, Cory, who attends school, works part-time at A&P, and aspires to be a football player. His best friend and coworker, Jim Bono, his oldest son from his previous marriage, Lyons, who is constantly asking for money, and his brother, Gabriel (referred to as “Gabe”), who was disabled in the war and is frequently chanting praises of when St. Peter would arrive, are all frequent visitors. The family faces their own set of difficulties, but they all go through Troy in some way, shape, or form. Troy is old school in the sense that he believes in labour-based employment to achieve success and respect from his wife and children. He disapproves of Cory’s interest in football and Lyons’ interest in music, while he finds solace in escaping from the house to watch baseball at the bar. When reading, keep an eye out for the baseball motif. Another issue is the construction of fences on their property, as well as the absence of white individuals in this play.

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During this period, Troy, a family man, worked as a garbage collector alongside his best friend Bono. Despite the steady pay, the two men are perplexed as to why only white men can drive trucks and Negros collect trash. This prompts Troy to challenge his union boss and file grievances with a commission. Maxson’s ascension seemed unlikely in the years between Jackie Robinson’s integration of baseball and the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Meanwhile, Rose has stood by his side like a traditional 1950s housewife. She wants the best for their son Cory, who has been granted a football scholarship to a university in North Carolina. Troy, rather than moving forward, is entrenched in the past, partially resentful and ruminating over his lack of a chance in the major leagues. Wilson’s Century plays include a common subject of numerous persons striving for the American dream, with one protagonist living in his customs of the past. In Fences, Troy Maxson is such a character because he would rather Cory follow in his footsteps than be his own person.

In addition, Troy must keep an eye out for his brother Gabe, who was paralysed during WWII, and Lyons, a son from a previous marriage. During the twentieth century’s crossroads, every character in this play wants a piece of the pie. Because Jackie Robinson has realised the ultimate American dream, African Americans think that everything is possible. This is exemplified by Cory’s desire to play football and earn a college education. This puts Rose in a difficult position because, in the 1950s, she was expected to value her husband’s position over her own. These strong characters generate poignant prose and a remarkable second act.

One day, Cory informs Troy and Rose about a college football scholarship offer. Troy informs Cory that he will not allow his son to play football out of concern for racial prejudice, which Troy says he faced when pursuing a career in the National leagues. However, it is implied that Troy informed Cory’s coach that his son is no longer physically capable of playing football. When Cory learns of this, he and Troy have a fight, which ends with Troy sending Cory to his room. Troy’s age following his prison time, rather than his ethnicity, is later proven to have been the key issue. Troy and his son argue about Troy’s actions, but Troy refuses to back down and kicks Cory out of the house. Cory later enlists in the military following this incident.

Troy confesses to Rose his affair and the fact that his mistress, Alberta, is pregnant. Alberta later dies during childbirth. Troy sends his infant daughter Raynell home, and Rose decides to raise her as her own, stating, “From right now . . . this child got a mother. But you a womanless man.” She remains in the family home, but the pair is estranged; she refuses to accept Troy’s return.

Troy died seven years later. Cory returns home from the military, where he serves as a corporal in the Marines. He initially refuses to attend his father’s burial out of long-held bitterness but is persuaded by his mother to pay his respects to his father — the man who, while being hard-headed and frequently incapable of expressing emotion, loved his son. The family bids Troy farewell and extends an undeserved pardon.

Fences first starred James Earl Jones as Troy Maxson. One of the greatest actors of the last fifty years. August Wilson’s Century Cycle plays, four of which won the Pulitzer Prize and other accolades, have left a lasting legacy.

Fences is a fascinating period drama set in 1957 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The plot revolves around Troy, a 53-year-old African-American man, and his family. We get to see Troy’s relationships with numerous characters in the play, and each one is distinct.

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Setting and Theme

In the play, we are introduced to a variety of themes. It is a play about family, responsibility, love, friendship, respect, and, most all, racism. The relationships between Rose and Troy, Troy and his brother Gabriel, whose brain was injured during WWII, Troy and Corey, and Troy and Bono are all wonderfully complicated and engaging. It is a drama, not a tragedy. It has both happy and sad parts. Troy is a human figure, strong, mainly decent and upright, but not always, and flawed. He is a less melodramatic, less hysterical King Lear, but a more human and deserving one.

Fences is a play about race. It is also a drama about family hardships that any family can relate to and face, but being a black family in 1957 is an even larger burden. August Wilson does an excellent job of depicting the moment through the primary perspective of Troy Maxson, a 53-year-old garbageman, and a family who can be defined as normal in the way that they are everything BUT average.

Fences is a great reminder that people are people, and their desires and struggles are all the same regardless of their circumstances. Being insulted because of your race adds to an already difficult situation. This play does an excellent job of conveying the sufferings of each of the characters as well as building a backstory and everything else we may need to know about them. Everyone has been filled out to the extent that we believe they should be, and I believe August Wilson has levelled it out exactly as he believes it should be. The focus on the fences is not as strong as it could have been, but perhaps it is up to the reader to establish that connection. Nonetheless, it was a thought-provoking book that I would recommend.