It is Friday, Troy and Bono's payday. Their responsibilities as garbage collectors are done for the day. Troy and Bono reach Troy's house for their weekly ritual of drinking, catching up on each other's lives and sharing stories. Their dialogue begins in the middle of a conversation as they reach the dirt front-yard of Troy's house where the entire play takes place.
Troy recounts a story about a co-worker named Brownie who lied to their boss, Mr. Rand about having a watermelon in his hands, and trying to hide the watermelon under his coat. Both Troy and Bono think that Brownie's embarrassment about the watermelon was stupid. Troy has asked Mr. Rand, their boss, why the black employees aren't allowed to drive the garbage trucks, but only to lift the garbage. Bono is eager to hear the latest news of Troy's conversations with Mr. Rand and the Commissioner of the union about his complaint. Troy says that Mr. Rand told him to take the complaint to the union the following Friday. Troy isn't afraid of getting fired.
Bono transitions from the topic of Troy's complaint at work to the subject of Alberta, a woman who hangs out at Taylor's, a bar Troy and Bono like to frequent. Bono does not ask Troy directly whether or not he is having an affair with Alberta. Troy insists that he hasn't "eyed" women since he met his wife, Rose. Bono agrees. But Bono pushes the issue further by revealing to Troy that he has seen Troy walking around Alberta's house when Troy is supposedly at Taylor's. Troy gets mad at Bono for following him around. Bono asks Troy what he knows about Alberta. Troy tells Bono that Alberta is from Tallahassee, revealing that he knows something about her.
Rose comes out of the house. Rose and Troy tell Bono about the ways Rose has changed Troy for the better as a married man. Rose tells the men that Troy and Rose's son, Cory, has been recruited by a college football team and the college coach is coming to visit. Troy was a baseball player in the Negro Leagues but never got a chance to play in the Major Leagues because he got too old to play just as the Major Leagues began accepting black players. Troy does not want Cory to play ball, but to learn a trade. When Troy exclaims that it was unfair to prohibit anyone who was good enough to play in the Majors from playing and then takes a long drink, Rose reprimands him saying, "You gonna drink yourself to death." Her comment throws Troy into a long epic story about his struggle in July of 1943 with death. Troy turns the time when he was sick with pneumonia in Mercy Hospital into a fanciful story about his fight with a character named Death. Even as Rose provides the real story to Bono, Troy continues telling his tale.
Lyons, a son Troy had before he met Rose, shows up at the house as he has tended to do on many Fridays in the past because Lyons knows it is Troy's payday. Lyons is a jazz musician. He asks Troy if he can borrow ten dollars. Troy continues his saga about Death, changing the times and situations in which he met Death and the Devil. This includes the time a door-to-door salesman that Troy claims is the Devil sold him a layaway plan to buy furniture. Lyons thinks Troy's belief that he has seen the Devil is as ridiculous as Troy thinks it is for Lyons to pursue music. Troy puts down the way Lyons was raised and Lyons accuses Troy of knowing little about the way he was raised because Troy was in jail for most of Lyons' childhood. Lyons and Rose convince Troy to give Lyons the ten dollars. Lyons abruptly decides to leave after receiving the money. Bono decides to go home to Lucille and the pig feet she made for dinner. Troy embarrasses Rose by telling Bono how much he loves his wife and brags that on Monday morning when it is time for work, he'll still be making love to her.
The first scene of Fences is also the longest scene in the play, possibly because Wilson uses this first scene to foreshadow several important elements of the plot and introduce elements he will repeat or contrast later in the play, enabling him to create a sense that the characters and time have changed. Wilson forces the audience to immediately acclimate to the world of the play by gathering information from Troy and Bono's conversation. The exposition in this first dialogue informs that Troy and Bono are close friends who work together. Bono agrees with Troy's negative opinion of their co-worker, Brownie, and shows that he sticks up for Troy at work, a sign he is a loyal as well as attentive friend.
Brownie's embarrassment over possessing a watermelon is a direct reference to racist stereotypical images of African Americans. Variety plays that portrayed stereotypical blacks played by white men in blackface, called minstrel shows, were the most popular form of American entertainment for over two hundred years. In caricature drawings and minstrel shows, African Americans were frequently depicted as lazy, child-like people who enjoyed nothing more than eating watermelons all day or stealing watermelons for pleasure. Troy and Bono think Brownie's embarrassment over having a watermelon was foolish on two levels. They think this because Brownie did a bad job of concealing the watermelon that was perfectly visible to everyone. The second reason is not conscious to Troy and Bono but to the playwright. Wilson is conscious that minstrel characters institutionalized the tradition of stereotypical black characters in American entertainment. Wilson turns this tradition on its head by writing his own realized characters in such a way that they indirectly refer to the stereotyping of blacks very early in the play thereby sending a signal to the audience that this play's project is in part to present characters who are three-dimensional. Troy and Bono are not ashamed to be black and have confident enough self-images that they would not be embarrassed to be seen with a stereotypical object like Brownie is with his watermelon. Too early to have the political-mindedness of Wilson characters inspired by the black pride movement, Bono and Troy nevertheless foreshadow issues that will emerge in the shaping of future African American identities.
Structurally, this first scene establishes patterns in the play to come. Bono and Troy's friendship is closest in this first scene and their language borrows words from each other more frequently in these first conversations. This is a technique playwrights have used for centuries to create the feeling that the characters are harmonious. Bono and Troy frequently use the word "nigger" as an endearing term, a common use of the word by African Americans who, like homosexuals who now embrace the term, "queer" to describe themselves, reverse an originally derogatory word used by a majority to denigrate a group into a word that the oppressed group uses for themselves with a positive connotation, lessening the power of its insult.
Bono and Troy's dialogue also foreshadows several plot elements. Concerned for Troy's family life, Bono inquires about Troy's relationship with a woman named Alberta. This piece of information foreshadows the inevitability that Troy will reveal his secret because Bono has been watching him closely and Troy is not covert at his sneaking around. Another conflict is planted in Act One, scene one when Rose informs Bono and Troy about the recruiter who wants to see Troy and Rose's son, Cory play football.
Setting the scene on Friday and returning to two more Fridays in following scenes allows Wilson to portray change. Lyons' entrance and Troy's complaint about his money borrowing will later provide laughs when Lyons shows up again. It will also establish Lyons as a trust-worthy, sympathetic character when Lyons makes good on his loan because he proves much more reliable than Troy's perception of Lyons in this first scene. When Bono and Troy no longer drink and laugh together on a future payday, we notice how far away from each other they've come since we first met them in the first scene that emphasizes the extent of the damage Troy's decisions have caused.