It is Saturday morning. The scene begins with Rose singing softly, “Jesus, be a fence all around me every day / Jesus, I want you to protect me as a I travel / on my way.” Troy is grumbling about people who play the lottery and people who squander their winnings. He is especially disdainful of a black man named Pope who won a large sum in the lottery and used it to finance a restaurant. Troy feels as though Pope has sold out the black community by giving poor service to his black clientele while catering to white people. The numbers, Troy says, “Ain’t done nothing but make a worser fool out of him than he was before.”
He grumbles about Cory being lazy. Rose tells him that Cory went to football practice, but Troy swears he only wanted to avoid working on building the fence in their yard. Troy insists that Cory “ain’t done a lick of work in his life.” Rose tells Troy to go back into the house and get a new cup of coffee to correct his mood. Troy grumbles that he is the one to always take the blame for other people’s shortcomings.
Gabriel enters, singing. Gabe is Troy’s brother. He is mentally disabled because of an injury suffered as a soldier in World War II. He now has a metal plate in his head. Gabe believes that he is the archangel Gabriel. He carries a trumpet on a string around his neck. He says that St. Peter has Troy's name in his book in heaven and Gabe is prepared to blow the trumpet to announce the coming of heaven to earth.
Gabe sells fruit out of a basket for extra money and is always proud of the few quarters he is able to collect from those that feel sorry for him. Gabe feels that Troy is always mad at him for some reason, though Troy denies this. Gabe asks Troy if he is mad at him for moving to Miss Pearl’s house. He tells Troy, “I just moved over to Miss Pearl’s to keep out from in your way. I ain’t mean no by it.” Gabe, however, is proud of his room and his independence.
Rose offers Gabe breakfast, but he says that “Aunt Jemimah” came by and cooked him “a whole mess of flapjacks.” He shows Troy his quarters and tells him that he is going to buy a new horn to announce the opening of heaven’s gates. He tells Troy that he hears the “hellhounds” and that he has to chase them away. Gabe runs off to chase the noise that he believes he hears.
Rose is concerned that Gabe isn't eating right in his new lodgings. Troy says he has done all he could for Gabe and that he does not deserve to be in some state hospital. Troy is concerned for Gabe’s freedom, wishing him to live a peaceful life after what happened to him in the war. “Man go over there and fight the war…messin’ around with them Japs, get half his head blown off…and they give him a lousy three thousand dollars. And I had to swoop down on that.”
Rose doesn’t want Troy to go into the controversy over the money, but Troy reminds her that it is only because of Gabe’s three thousand dollars that he was able to buy the house they now live in. It is apparent that Troy feels a measure of guilt over using the money for the house, though his intentions were clearly noble; he wanted to take care of his brother and provide a place for him to live. That Gabe has now moved out of the house for which he paid is another source of Troy’s guilt. He tells Rose that if it weren’t for Gabe’s monthly disability checks, “I wouldn’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. And I’m fifty-three years old. Now see if you can understand that!” Troy leaves the yard to go to the Taylors’ house and listen to the ball game.
This scene begins with Rose singing an African American spiritual representing the metaphor of the play. Rose sings, “Jesus, be a fence all around me every day / Jesus, I want you to protect me as I travel….” This song combines the uniqueness of the African American religious experience with Rose's domestic desire to establish a safe and happy home with her husband and son. There is an historic tradition in African American religion of travel and movement. Eighteenth and nineteenth century Southern black slaves often identified with the exodus of the Hebrew Bible. Fences, however, is a play about the tension between this historic value of exodus and the mid-twentieth century American ideal of settling into a home with a family. In this opening scene, Rose’s song is an outer expression of an inner conflict.
The dialogue between Rose and Troy regarding gambling and Cory’s work ethic is an example of the value that Troy puts on self-reliance and responsibility. Troy is openly disdainful of another man in the neighborhood who benefited from playing the lottery. He is unable to appreciate the fact that the man is attempting to better his life through his luck, even though both he and Rose know he is technically correct in his diagnosis of the social ill of “the numbers.” There is an association for Troy in gambling and in Cory’s scholarship to play football. Troy sees both games as a person’s loss of control over his own destiny. It is a mistake that Troy decides never to make again and one he does not want for his son.
This scene introduces Gabriel, Troy’s brother who is disabled after losing part of his head in battle during World War II. Gabriel is a “spectacle character.” His belief that he is the angel Gabriel is meant to be humorous for the audience, even as he gains sympathy for how his life and right mind were taken from him. Gabriel, however, does not just serve comic purposes; instead, he is a part of the story and provides an intriguing sub-plot. Like Troy, Gabriel is concerned with his freedom and independence. He has moved out of Troy’s house and is trying to make it on his own, even though he can only peddle fruit on the street.
Gabriel, besides playing the role of clown to provide some measure of comic relief, also functions as a kind of Greek chorus. In ancient Greek literature, a chorus was a group of characters that provided background and summary information to the audience in order to show them how they should react to a particular moment of the play. In some classical plays, the chorus was directly involved with the characters in the play, providing them crucial pieces of the story not evident from their point of view. Gabriel functions in a similar way in Wilson’s play. He brings a back story (as a soldier) of contributing the ultimate act of responsibility and sacrifice -- giving his life to his country. His presence is also a constant reminder to Troy that larger forces are at work in his life and that he is not always in control.
Troy loves and respects his brother, yet the audience learns that the relationship is more complicated. Troy took Gabe’s initial disability payout from the government and built a house with the intention of he, his wife, and Gabe living there. He also continues to take Gabe’ s monthly government check for expenses. Now that Gabe has moved out, Troy faces the reality that once again he is unable to provide fully for his family without the help of his disabled brother. Because of Gabe’s presence, the audience slowly learns that Troy is not the all-powerful patriarch that he claims to be.