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Exposing Boundaries in Fences
Fences is a play that deals with boundaries that hold people back and the trials and tribulations of those who try or wish to cross them. The characters are African-Americans in a time before the civil rights movement, living in an industrial city. The main character, Troy Manxson, is a talented baseball player who never had the chance to let his talent shine, with restrictions on race and his time in jail as the main obstacles that held him back. He is now hard working and loves his family. However, he tends to exaggerate and has his faults, most prevalent a wandering eye when it comes to women. His wife, Rose, is younger than him and loyal, but she may not have known about all of his faults when she married him. At the beginning of the play, Troy has a son from a previous marriage, Lyons, and a son with Rose, Cory. Also appearing are Bono, Troy’s drinking buddy, and Gabriel, his brother.
All of the characters are "fenced in," by various barriers. Troy is working in a job where African Americans can get the lowest and most difficult tasks. On the home front, he has responsibilities to his family. Rose has chosen life with Troy as an alternative to "a succession of abusive men and their babies, a life of partying, or the Church." Troy’s son, Lyons, is supposedly a musician but is going nowhere. Cory has potential but has his dream of playing college football extinguished by both protective and jealous Troy. The characters must deal with hardships of daily life, racial discrimination, straining relationships with each other, and the feeling that this is all their lives are: somewhat of a confined space with no escape; fenced in.
Troy’s brother Gabriel, although minor, is important to the play for many reasons. The most important is that while Gabriel perhaps has highest and most impassable fence around him, he is the only one who ignores it; he is not bounded, at least not in his own mind.
Gabriel is seven years younger than Troy. They were both in a large family with a frustrated and abusive father. Gabe is the only family Troy speaks with now. Injured in World War II, Gabriel had part of his head blown away. He now has a metal plate and is confused and somewhat delusional.
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Gabriel’s compensation check from the government is used by Troy to fund the family house. However, Gabriel affects the others in the play for less obvious reasons as well. He talks about how he is on a speaking basis with St. Peter and sings about getting ready for the judgment day. Although at the time it seems like just confused ramblings, it holds deeper meanings for the characters. The all have their demons. Perhaps the most prevalent is Troy’s affair with a woman named Alberta. The whole situation is more complicated than it appears because Troy really loves his wife and family. How would he be judged? As a despicable, lying cheat or maybe just a frustrated, misguided, well-meaning man with—deep down—a good heart? Maybe Troy doesn’t even want to think about it. Gabriel’s rambling serve as a sort of Greek chorus for the play.
Gabriel has perhaps the most confining "fence" around him, yet out of all of the characters in the play, he is the only one who acts unbounded, limitless, as if boundaries aren’t there. One of the reasons for this, obviously, is his disability. But it may also be his spirit. He is different from the other characters in the sense that while he has the least, he is the happiest. He appreciates things that others would scoff at, such as his trumpet. When someone gives him a quarter, he says he will keep it "till it stop shining." It is ironic that he says this as Troy reveals his affair and love child to Rose. Troy is very lucky to have a good woman like Rose and is still not happy enough to keep him from straying, yet Gabriel is content to receive just a single, lousy, twenty-five cent piece. Gabriel serves as sort of a measure of the others’ happiness. Troy may not become the famous ballplayer he could have been, and may feel frustrated with his life, but he has more than he realizes. Gabriel is able to appreciate the littlest things because they are all that he has. He is sort of the yang to the other characters’ yin; he seems to be the opposite, at least in terms of emotions. Everything in his life is magnified, something of enormous importance to him is miniscule to another. Therein lies the purpose of Gabriel in relation to the play. While the characters may be miserable and have their own battles to fight, while it seems as if there’s no purpose to life and their fences are impossible, they must appreciate the wealth of what lies inside those fences. While they may not be rich or have upper-class standing, they are important and do have each other. They are just as special as anyone else. They struggle, but that just makes their lives more meaningful. Gabriel helps demonstrate this.