Troy Maxson and Jim Bono are talking and drinking in the yard on a Friday night. Troy is concerned about his job at the sanitation department because he asked the bosses why the colored men have to lift the rubbish cans while the white men drive the truck. Bono asks about a girl, Alberta, with whom Troy has been flirting, and reprimands him for not being completely faithful to his wife, Rose. Troy replies, “I eye all the women…Don’t never let nobody tell you Troy Maxson don’t eye the women.” Troy describes Alberta as “one of them Florida gals. They got some healthy women down there…Got a little bit of Indian in her.”
Rose Maxson enters and she and Troy reminisce about how she won him for a husband though he hadn't been a marrying type. They argue about shopping at the A&P, which is cheaper, or at the local shop Bella's, which is a part of the community. Rose reports that a college football team is recruiting their son Cory. Troy wants Cory to give up on football because the white man will never let him get anywhere with it. He believes that Cory should keep the job he has at the A&P and “get recruited in how to fix cars or something where he can make a living.”
Troy played baseball in his youth, but it was before the days of Jackie Robinson and baseball’s integration. Troy couldn't advance to the big leagues because of his race. Baseball, Troy says, never got him anywhere. “Ain’t got a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of” because of the sport. Bono replies that the sports have changed and that many African-Americans are playing in the major leagues now, but Troy answers that minorities will never receive the same deference given to white players.
Rose reprimands Troy for drinking so much, and Troy chides her. He tells them both that they cannot teach him anything about death. “Death ain’t nothing but a fastball on the outside corner…That’s all death is to me.” He relates a story of how he caught pneumonia in July of 1941 and was sent to the hospital. He says that he struggled with death for three days and eventually won the wrestling contest. Troy refuses to go easy; Death will have to fight to get him in the end.
Lyons, Troy's son, comes by to ask Troy for money. Lyons is a struggling jazz musician, “more caught up in the rituals and ‘idea’ of being a musician than in the actual practice of the music.” Troy knows that Lyons is coming to ask him for money and teases him in a mean-spirited way. Lyons asks for ten dollars and Troy refuses to directly give it to him, making him take the money from Rose instead. Lyons insists that his girlfriend, Bonnie, is working at one of the hospitals and that he will have the money to pay Troy back.
Troy tells of buying his furniture on credit from a mysterious white man who may or may not have been the devil. He tells him that he pays ten dollars to the devil each month for the furniture and that he has been paying that sum for the last fifteen years. Rose shakes her head and calls it a tall tale. Troy insists that his son get a job and offers to get him in with the sanitation department. Lyons says the work wouldn’t agree with him and that he is going to keep making music because it gives his life meaning. He tells Troy, “You and me is two different people, Pop.” Troy tells them he doesn’t have extra money since his brother, Gabe, moved out of the house.
Lyons leaves and Bono tells Troy that Lyons will “be alright…The boy is still young.” Troy tells Bono, “The boy is thirty-four years old.” Troy goes to Rose and tells Bono he loves her so much that it hurts him. He says he’s run out of ways to love her and that Bono shouldn’t come by his house on “Monday morning talking about time to go to work…’cause I’m still gonna be stroking!”
The play’s title is a manifestation of its primary theme: the ways that people protect themselves from forces bigger and more powerful than themselves, yet also trap those they love into relationships of conflict. Each character in the play attempts to create their own emotional fence to control others and protect themselves from those they love most. Though the play is meant to give a realistic picture of life in the industrial north of the 1950’s, the themes of Fences are also meant to be universal for all audiences.
Wilson spends much of the first scene establishing the characters, their relationships, and the world of black working-class Pittsburgh. This scene introduces the play’s protagonist, Troy Maxson. Troy is a man of many layers. He is a devoted husband and father, though as we learn he is also controlling and unfaithful. He is forward thinking – he fights for equality and his job and he pursues the American Dream – yet he also feels helpless in a world that seems to be passing him by. Most importantly, perhaps, he is a man that wants his children to have everything he did not, yet cannot seem to stand the idea that they would bypass the hardships that he had to go through.
Jim Bono is Troy’s closest friend and confidant. It is noteworthy that Troy says the words “I love you” to Bono, but not to his sons. Bono is Wilson’s representation of African American brotherhood and their close relationship explores how masculine bonding creates an intimacy not shared with family. Rose Maxson, Troy’s wife, is the epitome of this intimate divide. Rose represents the choices (and lack thereof) for African American women in 1957. She has the inner strength to love Troy and to care for his children even in the face of Troy’s unfaithfulness, but she can never define herself outside the boundaries of family.
Troy’s sons act as a mirror of his best and worst qualities. Lyons Maxson, Troy’s oldest, is a jazz musician. He is laid back and unconcerned with daily problems. His is a much different life than Troy’s, but Troy begrudgingly respects Lyons for rejecting the proscriptions of society. Cory, introduced in the second scene, is the truest representation of the conflict between father and son, a dominant theme throughout the play.
Troy’s relationship with Rose and Bono and his relationship with his sons is a study in contrast. In this early scene, Troy enters the play as a clown. He makes crude and funny sexual advances towards his wife and he jovially drinks and gossips with his friend Bono. When Lyons appears, however, the conflict between father and son becomes apparent. Troy might somehow admire Lyons’ choices in life, but it is only because he has no control over his son. The audience later finds out that Troy spent most of Lyons’ childhood in prison. Now, he can only be a spectator as Lyons lives his life. Though Troy does not approve of his son’s lifestyle, he understands that Lyons can only do what he wants to do. Troy’s issue with loaning Lyons money symbolizes this. Troy knows that his ten dollars will only go to support his son’s jazz career and so he gives him a hard time about it. In the end, Lyons gets the money circuitously through Rose because Troy cannot help but support his son. Lyons’ declaration that jazz music gives his life meaning is powerful for Troy since he feels that his life has had no other meaning beyond responsibility for others.
This scene first introduces the play’s motif of death. Here, death appears in Troy’s story of owing money to a furniture company. Death is a devil who appears as a white man selling furniture. This story is Troy’s way of symbolizing his own concept of racism during his life. Though he does not actually owe any money to a white man (as his father had as a sharecropper), Troy still feels that his life is somehow indebted to forces that he cannot understand or clearly perceive. In this way, he will always be in debt and will continually struggle with death.