Fences ( #AugustWilson #CenturyCycle, 6 of 10)

August Wilson’s Century Cycle >  Spoiler-free scene breakdown

  • Premiered: 1985
  • Setting: 1957; 1965; Troy Maxon’s lived-in backyard, Pittsburgh

A prose prologue contrasts the experience of European immigrants who were embraced by cities, with the opposition faced by the descendants of African slaves.

I.i. (Friday evening)

Troy (large man) and Bono (his “follower”) “engage in a ritual of talk and drink.” Troy is hoping his union will back his push to be promoted from garbage collector to driver; Troy is dismissive of co-worker Brownie, who Bono mentions is interested in “that Alberta gal,” and Troy admits he’s bought her a drink, though he insists he’s faithful to his wife Rose. When Rose enters, Troy revisits their romance, though she interrupts several times to say he’s lying (but it’s loving banter). Rose speaks of supporting local grocer Bella, while Troy notes the AP (where their teenaged son Cory works) is cheaper. Troy discusses his past career in the Negro baseball league, comparing his stellar batting average with that of the mediocre white player Selkirk, who plays for the Yankees. Troy dismisses Jackie Robinson, and takes a big drink, earning a scolding from Rose.  In the context of friendly banter, Rose undercuts his story to Bono about wrestling with Death. Lyons (musician; Troy’s son by another relationship) enters; Troy is dismissive, saying Lyons is only there to borrow money, but Rose is friendly, and Troy does offer Lyons a drink. As part of a lesson to Lyons about responsibility, Troy tells a story about renting furniture from the devil. Rose again undercuts his story. Troy gave up on baseball and settled for the less-glamorous but stable life as garbage man; Lyons doesn’t want a regular job, he wants to play music. Troy says of Rose, “I love this woman so much it hurts.”

I.ii (next morning)

Rose singing “Jesus, be a fence all around me.” Troy dismisses her talk about playing the lottery; they discuss Cory’s football practice.  Gabriel (Troy’s brother who suffered a head injury in WWII) enters and sings about selling plums; he believes Troy is mad at him because he moved out to live on his own. Gabriel insists he’s seen Tory’s name in St. Peter’s book, sings about judgement day. Troy feels guilty because the house they live in was paid for with Gabriel’s settlement money.

I.iii (four hours later)

Cory returns from football practice; Rose warns him his father will be upset. Troy playfully grabs Rose, scaring her. Troy scolds Cory for being behind in his chores. They work on building the fence Rose wants; Cory asks for a TV; though Troy puts up a lot of resistance, he ends up agreeing to pay for half if Cory puts up the other half. Troy reminds Cory of their deal that he would keep his A&P job as a condition of playing football; though Cory is being recruited by a college, Troy insists he not break their deal, saying “The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway,” and tells him to get an education and learn a trade. “learn how to put your hands to good use. Besides hauling people’s garbage.” Cory asks “How come you ain’t never liked me,”  which prompts Troy’s response (definitely worth reading — great exchange). Rose tells Tory times have changed — Cory has a better chance of succeeding in sports. Troy describes how he barely gets himself through each week.

I.iv. (Friday, two weeks later)

Rose scolds Cory for leaving his room a mess; Cory heads out with his football gear. Troy sings the song his father made up, about the old dog Blue, which he used to sing with Cory.  Lyons shows up; Troy notes that a place where Lyons plays was raided, but Lyons insists he doesn’t gamble; Bono reports Troy got the promotion to driver; Lyons wants to pay Troy back, but Troy tells him to keep it for the next time Lyons wants to borrow from him. (As he was with Cory and the TV, here Troy is actually being generous, but it’s also a power play to him.) Gabriel shows up with a flower for Rose. Lyons engages (kindly — he’s very warm) with his uncle Gabriel’s religious metaphors. Rose tells Tory she wants him to sign the papers for Cory’s college recruiter; Lyons is supportive, but Troy is upset Cory disobeyed him about keeping his A&P job. Bono shares a story about his own “daddy.” Troy says his own father “was trapped” by responsibility to eleven kids; his mother ran off when he was eight; when he was fourteen his father caught him with a girl, whipped him to “have the gal for himself.” Troy attacked his father, who beat him back, and in the process Troy felt the world got big and his father got small. Lyons seems impressed by his father’s story; Troy describes stealing in the city, getting shot during a robbery attempt, killed the other man with a knife, and met Bono in jail. Learned baseball in jail; told Rose baseball came first, but their relationship would eventually outlive baseball. (Rose playfully calls him a liar once again.) Troy and Bono display their man-love for each other, but Bono say she needs to go home to “my woman.”  Cory enters and… my policy is not to give away spoilers, but Troy says it’s strike one on Cory.

Act II.i. (next morning)
Rose asks Cory to help her with chores; Troy comes home from apparently bribing the authorities to get Gabe out of trouble (a regular occurrence). Bono notes that Troy and Alberta “done got tight,” and warns Troy, “Rose a good woman,” and “I love you both.” Troy updates Rose on Gabe, who was teased by kids and arrested for disturbing the peace; Troy tells Rose about Alberta; Gabriel enters with a rose for Rose; she is kind to him, but understandably has a hard time processing what Troy has told her; Troy says “I can sit up in her house and laugh” and insists Rose is not to blame. Troy uses another baseball metaphor, suggesting his affair with Alberta is like stealing second after being stuck on first for too long. Rose has a monologue in response; Troy grabs her arm and Cory sees her hurting her, and Cory earns a strike two.

II.ii (six months later)

Troy continues to give his salary to Rose, but they are living separate lives. She wants him to come home after work, but he wants to go with “the boys”. Alberta is in the hospital for the baby (early). Gabriel has been locked up; Rose believes Troy is no longer sticking up for him (having read about it in the paper). Rose accuses Troy of singing Gabriel into the hospital in order to get half of Gabriel’s money. The phone rings with news that Rose shares with Troy. (No spoilers.) Troy has another monologue about battling death.

II.iii. (three days later)

Rose “sits listening to the ball game waiting for Troy.”  When he does arrive, he has a surprise with him; he gives a tender monologue; asks Rose for a big favor. She agrees, but at a price.

II.iv (two months later)

Lyons explains why he missed Cory’s graduation; Cory does some baseball practice but gives up; Rose is busy with a church activity (part of the separate life she is now living); Troy sings the song about the dog “Blue.” When Bono stops by, Troy notes Bono hasn’t been around much, and in fact now spends Fridays playing dominos at Skinner’s; they are no longer working the same route; Troy says driving is lonely, and is thinking of retiring.  More “Blue” song. When Cory enters, there is tension between him and Troy; neither backs down, things escalate, and… strike three. A reference to the fence; another reference to Death.

I.v. (1965 — years later)

Raynell (if you’ve looked at the cast list you’ll know who she is, so this isn’t much of a spoiler) is impatient for her garden to grow. Cory arrives, now in a marine corporal’s uniform. Bono says Lucille is at church lining up the pallbearers. “They let Lyons come,” but Gabriel is in the hospital and might not be released in time.  Rose introduces Cory and Raynell; Lyons shows up, supportively notes that he hear Cory is thinking of getting married (Bonnie has left Lyons); Lyons is serving time for forgery, but has been let out to attend Troy’s funeral. Cory and Lyons “share a moment of quiet grief” and Rose describes Troy’s demise, swinging his bat in the backyard “with a grin on his face.” Rose gets a long monologue that fills us in on the past few years; Raynell and Cory bond in a touching way. (No spoilers.) The final action involves sending Troy off — Gabriel’s first attempt doesn’t work; the stage directions are heartbreaking as they describe Gabriel’s reaction (and how he solves the problem). In a play stuffed with so many eloquent monologues, it was gutsy and brilliant of Wilson to end his play the way he does.

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