August Wilson’s play Fences, the sixth of his ten-part “Pittsburgh cycle,” examines the aftermaths of slavery and discrimination of Black people in America, the cycle of damaged Black manhood, and the choice between pragmatism and illusion. First published in 1986, the play takes place in 1957 and is staged entirely at the Maxson family home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Wilson’s repeated use of the same setting foregrounds the different news and events that progress over the course of the play.

The main protagonist, Troy Maxson, has a name rich with meaning. His first name alludes to the ancient Greek city whose epic fall was highlighted in Homer’s Iliad, and Troy himself is a tragic hero who creates large and small conflicts with all the other characters in the play. His surname, Maxson, is a portmanteau of Mason-Dixon, the imaginary line that separated free and slave states in America, and comes to symbolize two opposing ideas of hope and disappointment in Fences.

Act One begins on pay day, Friday, with Troy and his loyal and attentive friend, Bono, drinking at Troy’s house. Wilson forces the audience to acclimate to the world of the play by gathering information from their conversation. Both men work as garbage collectors and Troy is fighting for the right to be able to drive the garbage trucks—which white workers do—instead of just collecting the trash. Troy is concerned about his own survival in his stagnant, disappointing life, and fails to understand how his loved ones have learned to cope by seeking simple pleasures and luxuries. For example, his wife, Rose, enjoys playing the numbers, the game serving as a metaphor for the various hopes and gambles that each character will take on in their lives.

The major conflict in the play is between Troy and his son Cory—thus between two separate generations—regarding Cory’s future. Troy also has an elder son, Lyons, to whom he cannot relate, scoffing at his choice to become a musician. Cory wishes to play football and attend college, although Troy wants him to work. In the play’s inciting incident, as the two build their home’s fence together, Cory tells his father that he has given away his job at the local A&P because a coach from North Carolina is coming to watch him play football. Troy, enraged, demands that he get the job back. 

This specific conflict also represents conflicting interpretations of history: Cory is optimistic about the present and sees that the world can be a more accepting place for talented Black men like himself. Troy, stuck in the past and bitter that he never made it to baseball’s Major Leagues, wants to protect his son from the discrimination and disappointment he experienced. Ironically, he does not realize that his protection suffocates and stifles Cory by limiting his chances for success. 

Both baseball and fences serve as interwoven motifs throughout the play. Baseball shifts meaning over the course of the play, evoking everything from Troy’s life philosophy to his relationships with his son and eventually, to Death. Fences are symbolic of relationships that can both bond and break, and they also indicate physical and emotional boundaries—as well as geographical and legal ones. Rose, perhaps, wishes for Troy and Cory to work on the fence together as a bonding experience and because she loves her family and wants to keep physically close to them. Troy, though, pushes people away.

As the play’s rising action begins, Troy reveals to Rose that he is having an affair with Alberta, who represents a world of illusion and escape for Troy that is separate from his responsibilities and disappointments. Rose reprimands him, and Troy grabs her arm, but Cory surprises him by attacking him from behind. Another key event occurs when Troy signs papers to commit his brother Gabriel, who suffered brain trauma during military service, to a mental institution. This action further drives a wedge between Troy and his family, especially as Troy admits he has used Gabriel’s government money to pay for their house, which is another humiliation, bringing Troy’s capabilities as provider for his family into question. As the play moves toward the climax, Alberta goes into labor early and dies during childbirth, leaving a baby girl behind. Rose vows to care for Baby Raynell as her own child, but refuses to be dutiful as Troy’s wife.

In the play’s climax, Troy picks a fight with Cory over what he perceives to be a lack of respect from son to father. Through their argument, Wilson underscores the idea of failed manhood and fatherhood when Cory points out how Troy could not even pay for his own home. The fight becomes violent when Troy confronts Cory with a baseball bat, an echo to Troy’s own experiences with his father, and he kicks Cory out of the house.

As the play’s falling action unfolds, seven years have gone by, and Troy has died from a heart attack. Cory returns home for his father’s funeral, after joining the Marines. He speaks with Raynell, and the audience comes to understand that she has disrupted the pattern of generational violence in the Maxson family; Raynell is emblematic of the new hope for the future.

As Fences reaches its resolution, the Maxson family is together in their home, except for the now deceased Troy. Gabriel, released from the hospital, improvises a dance and cries to the heavens, “That’s the way that goes.” His ability to create something joyous out of despair and hardship allows the play to end on a note of hope, suggesting that Black men and women are free to create their own destinies in a changing world.