¶ … Wilson, Fences
August Wilson's Fences allows the ordinary objects of domestic life to acquire a larger symbolic significance in their dramatic use. The play uses these symbols to dramatize a crucial moment in African-American history: the 1950s, when the great advances of the Civil Rights era are taking place, but when an audience might very well question what tangible effect they had on the lives of actual African-Americans. In presenting the story of Troy Maxson, Wilson's story predominantly dramatizes a story about justice: arguably, all of the symbols relate to this central theme.
The chief symbol that encapsulates the play's central themes of justice is, of course, baseball. Troy Maxson -- in his fifties at the time of the play -- is presented as having been a magnificent baseball player in his youth: Troy's friend Bono suggests only "two men ever played baseball as good as you. That's Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson." (Wilson 9). Wilson, however, is relying upon an audience to know the crucial role in which baseball in the American mid-century played out the public drama of African-American civil rights. For a start, the fact that Babe Ruth's name remains more famous than Josh Gibson reminds the audience that baseball was a segregated sport, with separate playing leagues for black Americans. For an audience to know who Josh Gibson was would require knowledge of the best players in baseball's so-called "negro leagues." However, the play also uses baseball to refer -- in a surprising way -- to the most famous race-related baseball event contemporary to its action, which is the breaking of baseball's color line with Branch Rickey hiring Jackie Robinson to play for a white team. Jackie Robinson's example is, of course, popularly regarded as an example of long-delayed justice for African-Americans, as it was dramatized very recently in the Hollywood film 42. However, Wilson crucially does not use Jackie Robinson as a symbol for justice, but as a vehicle whereby Troy Maxson can argue about the limitations of justice:
TROY: I done seen a hundred niggers play baseball better than Jackie Robinson. Hell, I know some teams Jackie Robinson couldn't even make! What you talking about Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson wasn't nobody. I'm talking about if you could play ball then they ought to have let you play. Don't care what color you were. Come telling me I come along too early. If you could play…then they ought to have let you play. (TROY takes a long drink from the bottle). (Wilson 10)
Troy's trash-talking about Jackie Robinson here is well within his characterization in the play, with its levels of self-aggrandizement and provocative tale-telling, but Wilson is making a crucial point here. Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color line in baseball came too late for a man of Troy's age. Troy cannot relate to the younger athlete's increased opportunities with a sense of solidarity or vicarious joy: he can only reflect, somewhat bitterly, on the illogic of the original injustice he suffered. This is a play that wants to make it clear that the advent of civil rights for blacks did not have some miraculous effect on black Americans, overwhelming them with gratitude. In reality, the astonishingly belated concession of these civil rights by white America is more likely to provoke Troy's mix of resentment, frustration, and anger. There is not much for Troy to do here apart from state the obvious truth, and then have another drink.
This is why football also becomes a crucial symbol in the play, related to baseball -- part of the importance of football here is that Wilson is dramatizing history itself. The centrality of football to American life is something that would emerge after the action of the play -- the action of Fences takes place between 1957 and 1965,...
Football, in other words, is not a sport in which there were ever negro leagues, and it would overtake baseball as the most popular sport in America -- and one in which a preponderance of players were black -- at around the time of Troy Maxson's death. As a result, football stands out as a symbol of the future that Troy will never get to experience -- and his refusal to sign the papers giving permission for his son Cory to be recruited for a football scholarship shows the suprising way in which injustice perpetuates itself. White America has been unjust to Troy Maxson -- Troy will turn around and be unjust in turn to his own son, falsely extrapolating from his own experience. It is Cory's own black father who will insist he "quit the football team. You've got to take the crookeds with the straights" (Wilson 37). But we are meant to understand this as the resentment of a man who was forced by society to "take the crookeds" and insists upon inflicting "the crookeds" on his own family at a moment when society seems to be realigning itself more towards justice.
However the most overtly symbolic aspect of the play is also the one which most clearly connects the purpose of Wilson's symbolism to ideas of justice. This is Troy's war-wounded brother Gabe, whose traumatic brain injury has left him with the delusion that he is the embodiment of the Archangel Gabriel on earth: "he carries an old trumpet tied around his waist and believes with every fiber of his being that he is the archangel Gabriel" (Wilson 24). In religious symbolism, Gabriel's trumpet sounds to announce the Last Judgment -- in other words, the moment when a perfect divine justice intervenes on earth, and presumably rights all wrongs eternally. (Because of this symbolism Gabriel recurs frequently in African-American spirituals, and even in 20th century white cultural material that references this black tradition, like Cole Porter's "Blow Gabriel Blow," The Marx Brothers' "Gabriel Blow Your Horn," and Marc Connelly's The Green Pastures.) Gabe in Fences is, of course, aware of this tradition -- although his way of phrasing it seems like this idea of a promised future divine justice is a way of sidestepping the struggle and conflict which might establish justice in the present day. As Gabe phrases it: "ain't gonna be too much of a battle when God waving that Judgment sword. But the people's gonna have a hell of a time trying to get into heaven if them gates ain't open" (Wilson 47-8). In other words, the justice that Gabe awaits on the Day of Judgment is one in which there will be no "battle," because God is omnipotent. In the play's astonishing conclusion, Gabe does blow his trumpet to demand Troy's admission into heaven: "It's time to tell St. Peter to open the gates. Troy, you ready? You ready, Troy" (Wilson 100). Of course, this moment -- set up in the play's opening moments -- is a pure anticlimax as Gabe, who has been waiting years to do this, has a broken trumpet and does not know how to play. In some sense, it is the perfect metaphor for the way in which the long-delayed racial justice of the civil rights era affected a man like Troy Maxson: anti-climactically, as a vast disappointment. Except Gabe is then forced into himself to find some kind of ritual expression -- a dance -- of the divine intervention that fails to materialize, and Wilson's sublime but ambiguous stage direction indicates that it does materialize: Gabe "finishes his dance and the gates of heaven stand open as wide as God's closet" (Wilson 101).
What Fences uses its symbolism to dramatize is the complexity of a real African-American life like Troy Maxson's, blighted by the personal experience of injustice in an age that is remembered historically for the late advent of justice.…
He insists Cory give up any dream of playing ball and makes him return to the A&P. It is important to note Troy does not intend on making his son's life difficult nor does he want to make him miserable but he does want him to have a stable job that will allow him to provide for a family. There is also the notion that at the A&P, Cory
His famed position was that of the lone man, dependent entirely upon his own strength, speed, and skill, in direct competition with the physical prowess of his opponents and with no assistance from his teammates. His mental confrontation with Death, whom he sees variously as a martial force and as a competitor on the field, demonstrate the perspective that Troy has on life and the world, and they also
fences' is precisely that 'fences' and yet whilst some handicaps seem impassible, there are others that are built on mental schemas, personal experiences, and the way that we instinctively and unconsciously interpret the world. A recent book that I read (unsuccessfully traced) conveyed the author's conclusion from his years of psychotherapeutic practice which was that people construct narratives of their lives in order to make meaning of them. Frequently,
Fences Playwright August Wilson won two Pulitzers in his illustrious career. In The Pittsburgh Cycle, Wilson wrote a series of plays each depicting a different decade in the lives of African-Americans living in the United States. Of these, Fences, takes place in the 1950s and features the problems not only of the African-American experience, but also the situation of societal oppression indicative of that period. At the heart of the play
Cory at first refuses to attend his own father's funeral, but his mother convinces him that will not make him any more of a "man." In fact, allowing himself to be so stubborn and unforgiving is just like his father, so he is more like his father than he might care to admit. It takes Troy years, but he finally comes to terms with his relationship with his own
The words on the page are powerful as Williams uses symbolism to emphasize moods. Viewing the play with the plays of light and shadows would be a delight because we could see the characters moving in and out of darkness. August Wilson's play, Fences, is titled such because of the fences people tend to build between one another. This is demonstrated with Troy and Cory, who cannot agree upon much.