“Fences” by August Wilson
The title image of Fences, the third play in August Wilson’s black history chronicle, very appropriately conveys a number of realities for the black family of late ’50s America. It raises issues ranging from economic and professional deprivation to emotional and moral isolation. The fence, which may either inhibit or protect, is both a positive and negative image to various members of the Maxson family. To Rose, who nags Troy about completing this wooden border, the fence promises to keep in those whom she loves, preventing them from leaving the fortress she so lovingly sustains for them. To Cory, however, the fence becomes a tangible symbol of all that stands in the way of his independence. His work on it is merely an exercise in obedience and a reminder that he is not yet a man-at least not to Troy. To Troy, the fence represents added restrictions placed upon him. Thus he half-heartedly erects one section of the fence at a time and completes the job only after accepting a challenge from Bono, who agrees to buy his wife, Lucille, a refrigerator as soon as Troy completes the fence. It takes Bono to explain to him the importance of the fence (Wilson 60- 61).
Troy’s reluctance to complete the fence seems ominous, for shortly after finishing it for Rose, he dies. The fence, then, becomes a gauge for his life, during which he experiences both literal and figurative incarceration. He is fenced off from society during a lengthy prison term; he is fenced out of the Major Leagues because of racial segregation; and after he initiates the breakup of his family, he is fenced out of his home as well as out of the hearts of Rose and Cory.
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Other metaphors that the poet-turned-playwright effectively weaves throughout Fences adopt their imagery from the game of baseball. Images of the game loom large in the consciousness of the onetime Negro Leaguer, Troy, who often borrows the behavioral codes of this game to suit various situations in his life. Part of the tragedy of Fences is Troy’s belief that he would have surpassed current black players and the white Major League players of his youth had he been allowed to play among them. His ego and professional potential have been devastated because he has been cheated out of at least a chance to play Major League ball. As an outward manifestation of the blues he surely feels because of this loss, Troy adopts the language of the game in order to explain the “deprivation of possibility” (Reed 93) that has hurt him so deeply.
For Troy, life is a baseball game riddled with fast balls, curve balls, sacrifice flies, and an occasional strikeout, but too few homeruns. Although the conflict of the ball game lasts for only nine innings, Troy sees himself as being constantly at bat. From keeping death at bay to announcing a “full count” against his defiant son Cory, Troy flavors his conversation with baseball metaphors at every chance he gets. The various rules of the game become his basis for interpreting his actions and another avenue for expressing his blues. His preoccupation with images associated with the traditionally masculine, extremely competitive sport robs him of the candor necessary to handle the delicate relationships in his life. In one of the most intense moments of the play, Troy struggles to explain to his wife that he has not only been unfaithful to her but has also fathered a child outside of their marriage bed: “I fooled them, Rose. I bunted. When I found you and Cory and a halfway decent job… I was safe. Couldn’t nothing touch me. I wasn’t gonna strike out no more…. I stood on first base for eighteen years and I thought… well, goddamn it… go on for it!” (Wilson 70). In using this second language, Troy comes to live it. He completely alienates both his son and his wife by forcing upon them his very selfish view of life. Consequently, he cannot see past immediate self-gratification; he cannot compromise, nor can he ask for forgiveness.
Wilson’s use of metaphor in Fences extends to include Gabriel, Troy’s disabled brother. Gabriel’s war injury, a severe head wound, required that a metal plate be surgically implanted in his head. The brain-damaged Gabriel fantasizes that he is Archangel Gabriel, whose tasks are to open Heaven’s pearly gates and to chase away hellhounds. When Troy is certain of Gabriel’s irreversible condition, he claims the $3,000 compensation awarded his brother and uses it to purchase the home where he, Rose, Cory, and Gabriel live.
Gabriel is what Wilson refers to as a “spectacle character” (interview), whose role, as its label suggests, is to command attention and to force both acknowledgment and understanding of issues that are sooner ignored. Here, he serves as a glaring reminder of the crippling injustices black men endure at the hands of their own country. Wilson notes, “This black man had suffered this wound fighting for a country in which his brother could not play baseball.” America cannot hide the shame of thousands of black veterans like Gabriel, who sacrificed dearly in the service of their country yet possibly faced homelessness, prison, or the insane asylum upon their return. Gabriel’s payment of $3,000 is ludicrously low for an injury that has maimed him for life.
Although Gabriel is not crucial to the central conflict of Fences his presence gives Troy another dimension. In addition to being an embarrassing emblem of America’s darker side, Gabriel is also a manifestation of the worst in Troy. He exposes a man who has become immune to the emotions of self-pity and remorse; a man who, after capitalizing on his brother’s misfortune, has him committed to a mental institution. Troy has become so devastated by his own deferred dreams that nothing, save pleasing himself, matters to him. He can sign papers to prevent his son from receiving free tuition as a football recruit; he can sign papers to put his brother away indefinitely. To Wilson, Gabriel has a significant function in Fences, and he is bothered by critics who dismiss this wounded man as a halfwit:
Wilson plays upon the dramatic tension inherent in the spectacle of Gabriel’s character, but he also relies upon this highly sensitive man to introduce an identifiable element of African American culture: belief in a spiritual world. Although Gabriel’s perceptions of Christianity and images associated with the afterlife are apparently the results of his dementia, he articulates several myths that have their origins in traditional religious beliefs among African Americans. For example, he revives the myth of Saint Peter, so-called keeper of the pearly gates, and keeps alive the fear of Judgment Day: “Ain’t gonna be too much of a battle when God get to waving that Judgment sword. But the people’s gonna have a hell of a time trying to get into heaven if them gates ain’t open” (47-48).
Gabriel also confirms the existence of a great Judgment Book in which Saint Peter records “everybody’s name what was ever been born” (26). Gabriel, who believes he has already died and gone to Heaven, is a privileged soul, for, according to him, Saint Peter has allowed him to see both Troyand Rose’s names recorded in the ledger. And, again, according to Gabriel, he sometimes relieves Saint Peter from the eternal task of guarding the pearly gates: “Did you know when I was in heaven… every morning me and St. Peter would sit down by the gate and eat some big fat biscuits? Oh, yeah! We had us a good time. We’d sit there and eat us them biscuits and then St. Peter would go off to sleep and tell me to wake him up when it’s time to open the gates for the judgment” (26).
Each encounter with Gabriel convinces one to look beyond his surface disability and concentrate instead upon the spiritual and mythical worlds he creates and the realms of possibility that these worlds offer. Gabriel’s ability to look beyond the literal is his own means of negotiating an indifferent world, yet it also exemplifies a long-standing Christian belief among African Americans to look toward things-not-seen for salvation. He has adopted both a frame of mind and a vision that get him through the daily drudgery of his condition. This special vision is most evident in the final scene of Fences, when the Maxson family prepares to bury Troy. At this time Gabriel experiences “a trauma that a sane and normal mind would be unable to withstand. He begins to dance. A slow, strange dance, eerie and life-giving. A dance of atavistic signature and ritual…. He finishes his dance and the gates of heaven stand open as wide as God’s closet” (101). As a spectacle character, Gabriel’s significance is in providing a flawed icon of African Americans’ cultural past. He is a cultural paradox-not taken seriously by those around him yet conveying in his distorted sensibilities the cultural bedrock of generations past and to come.
Regardless of the commercial concerns surrounding a possible film version, the play continues to speak to all types of families in turmoil similar to that of the Maxsons, for, among other things, Fences is a play about generations. According to Wilson, it addresses the question, “Are the tools we are given sufficient to compete in a world that is different from the one our parents knew?” (Savran 299). Given Troy’s unfortunate past, frustrating present, and dismal future, the answer to this question is a resounding “No!” Like a dinosaur, Troy has lumbered into a new age when it is not enough for a man to mete out harsh discipline or to bring home his paycheck or to rule over his wife and home. As he approaches his sixties, Troy shows no signs of giving up the crude codes of behavior that prevailed in his father’s house, nor is he willing to conform to the new standards set by a world poised for change. Only death merits his respect. On the occasion of Troy’s funeral, the members of the Maxson family convene and heal past emotional wounds that have kept them apart. That Troy’s death brings together a family that he has torn apart has ironic significance, for, in the terms of his favorite baseball metaphor, it is his ultimate sacrifice play.
Troy Maxson embodies a blues portrait of the black man’s predicament in urban America. This 1950s hybrid husband, father, and brother is a living testament to what oppression of generations of black families has produced. One part of him reflects his sharecropper father’s strong work ethic and sense of responsibility while another reveals his defiance against a system that has denied him the chance to elevate both his and his family’s circumstances. He wages constant battles on his job and within his home between old ethics and new realities. Thus his character is charged with the tension that results when these two worlds collide.
It is evident that in an effort to breathe more life into a singular character, Wilson stretches his dramatic skills to create the brutish, loquacious, and domineering, yet pensive, sensitive, and lovable Troy Maxson; in so doing, he silenced those critics who doubted his dramatic range (Shannon 102). When all of Troy’s fears and insecurities associated with being a black man in 1957 clash with the demons of his past, a bluesman of tragic proportion is born. As a result Troy Maxson can hold his own among protagonists such as Miller’s Willie Loman, Hansberry’s Walter Lee Younger, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Without question the successes of Fences garnered Wilson a prominent place in American theatre and, just as important, bolstered his confidence as a serious playwright.
Reed Ishmael. “In Search of August Wilson”. Connoisseur 217 (March 1987): 92-97.
Savran, David. In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theater Communications Group, 1988.
Shannon, Sandra G. August Wilson’s Fences: A Reference Guide. Greenwood Press, 2003.
Stayton Richard. “August Wilson Lets His Characters Go”. Los Angeles Herald Examiner, 31 May 1987, C2-C4.
Powers Kim. “An Interview with August Wilson”. Theater 16 (Fall/Winter 1984): 50-55.