73 pages 2 hours read

August Wilson


Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1986

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Summary and Study Guide


August Wilson’s play Fences premiered in 1985 at the Yale Repertory Theatre and was published the following year. It opened on Broadway in 1987 with James Earl Jones in the role of Troy. It was the third play to premiere of Wilson’s Century Cycle, although it is the sixth play chronologically. The Century Cycle, also known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, consists of 10 plays, one set in each decade of the 20th century. Each play has an all-Black (or nearly all-Black) cast and focuses on the historical evolution of the experience of African Americans. Of the 10 plays, nine take place in Pittsburgh, and one (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, 1984) is set in Chicago. Wilson won his first Pulitzer for Fences as well as a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award. The 2010 Broadway revival featured Denzel Washington as Troy and Viola Davis as Rose, roles they reprised in the 2016 Academy Award-winning film adaptation of the play.

Fences is set in 1957, 10 years after Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play Major League Baseball and in the midst of the civil rights movement in the United States. Schools had only been legally desegregated since 1955, and in 1957, the Little Rock Nine were not allowed to integrate into a White school until President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent federal troops to accompany them. Rosa Parks’ protest and the lynching of Emmett Till occurred in 1955. The Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1957, making it federally illegal to suppress voter rights, but for African Americans, opportunities for advancement remained scarce. Discrimination was still legal in employment and housing, and schools in Black areas were much less funded than White schools, making it very difficult for African Americans to receive a proper education and escape poverty.

Plot Summary

Troy Maxson was once a great player in the Negro baseball leagues, but he was not allowed to join the major leagues because he was Black. He left home when he was 14 after a confrontation with his abusive father. Troy fathered his first son, Lyons, and then spent 15 years in prison after a killing someone during a robbery. When the play opens in 1957, Troy is 53 years old and working as a garbage collector. He has just recently caused a stir at work by asking why Black men are not allowed to drive the trucks and filing a complaint with the union. Troy’s wife, Rose, informs Troy that their son, Cory, has caught the eye of a college football recruiter, but Troy is adamant that his son will not endure the same heartbreak that he did by attempting to play professional sports. Troy feels like a failure because at 53, he was only able to afford a house because his brother, Gabriel, received money after he was injured and brain-damaged fighting in World War II. Gabriel believes wholeheartedly that he is the angel Gabriel, carrying a trumpet that he expects to need one day.

Dissatisfied with his settled life, Troy begins an affair with a woman whom he eventually impregnates. Additionally, Troy commits Gabriel to a hospital, something he has been resisting for years. Troy’s mistress dies in childbirth and leaves Troy to raise their daughter with a wife who is devastated by Troy’s betrayal. Troy refuses to speak to the recruiter or allow Cory to play football, so Cory graduates from high school with bleak prospects and no chance to go to college. Cory finally challenges his father, and the violent confrontation ends with Cory leaving home. The final scene takes place in 1965 on the day of Troy’s funeral. Cory returns home, now a colonel in the Marines, and meets his half-sister for the first time since she was an infant. The family is free of Troy, but Cory learns that his father is a part of him that he can never escape. Gabriel blows his horn to open the gates of heaven so Troy can finally rest.

Fences addresses the struggles of a Black father who feels cheated by life because racism and segregation have kept him from reaching his full potential. The play remains Wilson’s best-known work and is partially autobiographical. It is about the inheritance of generational trauma and the way one damaged Black man tries not to follow in his abusive father’s footsteps, only to inflict the same abuse and damage on his son. It is also about the choice to break the cycle in an evolving world, and the potential of one generation to rise above the last. The play shows that growth and change take time but are possible.