August Wilson – the notable contemporary playwright who died in 2005 – focused his drama on the African American male through history. He was a vigilant historicizer of the experience of African Americans and won four New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, two Drama Desk Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, one Outer Critics Circle Awards, and one Tony Award. Fences, which Wilson wrote in 1985, is the second in a series of historical plays (Elkins 45). Unlike the other plays in the series, Fences provides greater sophistication in the characterization of the female lead accorded more consciousness than her predecessors and the motivation of her male cohorts. Thus, given this characterization, it is possible to conclude that the most impossible and far-reaching “fences” in the play are those of gender.
The author presents Fences in two sections, with the first section containing the play’s major themes and conflicts and the second part concluding the ramifications of the conflicts. One can analyze each character’s actions using three gender trait categories to understand the patterns that each of these characters has relieved, revised, and sometimes ran away from in the play. As they live within or beyond the confines of these patterns, the fence represents different forms of barriers in their lives (Wilson 66). These gender traits include communication patterns, behavior characteristics, and power sources. Two characters that exemplify living a life full of repetitive patterns are Troy and Rose, the senior members of the Maxson household.
Troy Maxson – the patriarch of the family – struggled with racism and isolation. Troy left home after a violent encounter with his father, aged 14 and took various odd jobs as he made his way in the world. At some point, Troy found himself engaging in criminal activities to support his wife and son, Lyons. He was then convicted of murder and was sent to prison, where he learned to play baseball. He became a Negro League player after his release (Wilson 99). Unfortunately, by the time baseball was integrated, Troy was too old to play for it. He felt isolated and discriminated against based on his skin color – not age. Consequently, he became bitter with professional sports, claiming it was difficult to achieve professional sporting success as an African American player.
The feeling of isolation and racial discrimination did not end with Troy’s departure from professional baseball engagements; it followed him to his second occupation as a garbage collector. He complained to the Union that it was not just letting white men drive garbage trucks while black men picked up the trash. The Union allowed Troy to drive the garbage truck, but he felt isolated again. The driver’s job was not as sweet as previously imagined (Wilson 163). It was a lonely job that separated him from his friends. Troy was, yet again, dissatisfied with this job and was never contented with what he did. As a baseball player, he believed that his race – not his age – disqualified him from the major league. As a garbage collector, Troy believed that picking up the trash was an inferior job reserved for blacks while driving the garbage truck was a more senior occupation reserved for drivers. Soon, he realized that each job has advantages and disadvantages and that one needed to be satisfied with what they got.
Concurrent with concerns about racism is the utilization of power in this family. It brought Troy more pain and isolated him from his friends, children, and wife. Being the patriarch of his family, Troy used a lot of power to determine what those in his household needed to do. From his first marriage, Lyons – Troy’s son visits him occasionally, especially on paydays. Lyons is a musician and stops by his father’s place to borrow money, and Troy is often critical of his son’s lifestyle but eventually gives him money. Cory – Troy’s son, is in high school and plays football from his second marriage, hoping to join college on a football scholarship (Wilson 170). Troy is not happy with his son Cory’s decision, perhaps because he had a negative experience as a baseball player. He does not want his son to play football or go to college on a football scholarship, preferring instead for his son to learn a trade that can help him achieve career growth at the A&P grocery store where Cory has a part-time job. Troy’s demand leads to a physical confrontation that forces Cory out of his home.
Another character in the play that experiences a recurrent pattern is Rose, Troy’s second wife and Cory’s mother. Rose has supported Troy since they married and has been true to him throughout their marriage. However, she experiences recurring betrayal perpetrated by her husband’s romantic involvement with another woman. Since Rose is determined to maintain her marriage, she asks Troy to end the extramarital affair, but he refuses (Elkins 145). Troy’s relationship results in a pregnancy, but his side lover dies during pregnancy. Rose is forced to experience the pain of betrayal again when her husband tells her to take care of the girl born out of that extramarital relationship. She agrees to take care of this girl and promises to leave Troy, which she does. Troy feels isolated, just as he felt at work as his children and wives have left him. Rose took care of the girl as if she was hers and lived alone during this time.
Rose is still true to herself and her virtues despite the challenging marriage. She still appreciates Troy for the good time and values their Union. Thus, when Troy died in 1965, she convinces her son Cory to attend the man’s funeral. Cory was determined not to attend the funeral because he was bitter with his father’s dominating tendency. After Rose convinced her to focus on his father’s good side, not just the negative memories, he agreed to attend the funeral (Elkins). This repetitive pattern of suffering for a dedicated woman like Rose is indicative of the strength of a woman and the importance of a forgiving heart in mending relationships and removing barriers. Rose was Troy’s only true and loyal partner because she still valued him even after death. Tory’s other friends and family members had left him during his turbulent years, and he died an isolated and lonely man in 1965.
The observed repetitive experiences relived by Troy and Rose are related to behavior characteristics adapted by the family members. The organization of the Maxson family is around strict gender roles and related behaviors. The family behaviors, firmly established in the play’s first Act, influence how the individual members behave and interact with others (Elkins 312). As the family’s patriarch, Troy remains a dominant and controlling force. He quickly points out those questioning his position as the leader and does not create room for negotiations to have the sons and his wife determine what they want in life. Troy calls himself the boss and does “the only saying that counts” in his family (Wilson 940). Troy comes from a dysfunctional family where he saw his father mistreat his mother to the point that she left. It is possible that Troy got some of these character traits from his father and was dissatisfied with his life and needed to control others to feel a semblance of peace.
When Cory asks his father whether he likes him, Troy is brutally honest with his son, claiming that as Cory’s father, he does not have to like Cory. He only needed to take responsibility for Cory as his son. Surprisingly, Troy treated his children as badly as his father did, even though Troy admits that he never liked his father (Wilson). Somehow, it borrowed most of his behaviors from his father. The characters within the play communicate according to the assigned gender roles and responsibilities regarding communication patterns. Troy’s speech is characteristically male – it includes playful banter, sexual innuendos, and coarse language. He talks the most in the play, and his speeches show the progression of the family and the issues that occurred along the way. The power source for the characters is their gender, their role, and their financial abilities. Troy is more powerful because he is the man of the house and the sole breadwinner. These differences between the characters and the paths they took.
Elkins, Marilyn. August Wilson: A Casebook. Routledge, 2013.
Wilson, August. Fences. Routledge. 1985.