Fences is a play of relationships. The relationship to one’s family, to one’s environment, to oneself, and to one’s past.
It is impossible to look at the relationships in Fences without taking into the account the time in which the play takes place and the racial politics inherent to the period. Troy serves the generational gap between the Jim Crow and the Civil Rights eras, having lived to see the horrors and brutality of life in the early 20th century and the burgeoning opportunities afforded to the next generation of African Americans. Troy retains his bitterness as a former baseball star in the Negro league who was denied the opportunity to make it into the Major League. As his friend Bono tells him, just came along too early.
Troy failed on two accounts: One, he was unable to make it as a baseball player despite his talents; he was held back because of the discriminatory practices of the time. Two, despite his principled stance on providing for yourself, all he has is on account of payouts from his brother’s war injuries. It is these failures (as little at fault as he may be) that informs Troy’s relationships with his two sons.
Troy’s responsibilities are all he has left. The only thing he has left to show that he’s better off than where he started out is that he can provide and make sure others can provide for themselves. He is a man who needs to be needed. When others rely on him, he has control. Cory’s potential ascension in class is a threat to Troy; he is afraid to be overshadowed by his son when he himself was never even given the chance to fulfill his own potential. What’s more is that Cory’s athletic talent has little to nothing to do with Troy — it was not a skill he was able to teach his son so that he could make his own way; rather, it was a talent developed independently.
It is perhaps for this reason as much as his genuine love of football that Cory wants to play and do well in the sport.
Cory seeks his father’s approval. He wants Troy to be able to live vicariously through his own success. However, the more Cory tries to please his father and the more successful he threatens to become, the more steadfast Troy grows in his resolve to sabotage a potential future provided by football.
Troy’s failure as a baseball player was something entirely out of his control. While he is portrayed as a garrulous, Munchausian storyteller, there’s no real indication or reason to believe he wasn’t a talented ballplayer. Cory’s talent in an athletic field opens the old wounds Troy has regarding his aborted baseball career.
However, it’s more complicated than that. The nature of the relationship between Troy and Cory is somewhat paradoxical, with two distinct motives driving Troy’s actions. While jealousy is certainly a factor in Troy’s decision to not sign the recruiter’s papers, boiling his motives down to something as simple as that is a mistake.
At the root of Troy’s mistrust of Cory’s interest in football is the sense of responsibility he feels. It’s a mode of protection from the very real racial discrimination that might cut short Cory’s football career in the same way his baseball career ended before it started. Another failure of Troy’s is that he didn’t take his own advice — he never learned a trade of his own. Instead, he collects garbage. While his actions may seem selfish (and while there may be an element of greed in them), he genuinely believes that putting an end to the whole business, saving him now, is the best thing to do. As he tells Cory, he doesn’t have to like him, but as his father he is responsible for him.
Troy’s relationship with Lyons is much different. In a way, it’s much simpler. Lyons, unlike Cory, does not have success in his immediate future. While the play indicates that he’s not untalented as a musician, Lyons is not about to break into the big time. He is unfortunate enough to have a passion in which success is based on the indecipherable whims of public opinion. Music is an art, the determined worth of which is graded on a subjective rubric. Cory, however, has a talent that can be proven by raw statistics: yards gained, passes completed, touchdowns scored. What’s more, Cory’s statistical achievements are directly correlated to his financial success. Lyons can technically be a “successful” as a musician on the club circuit without reaping the deserved monetary reward. Therefore, Lyons, while perhaps doing well in his own way, still has a financial dependency on his father.
This lack of financial independence is, in Troy’s eyes, something of a failure. He never learned a trade to support himself. While this could itself reflect a “failing” in Troy’s parenting, in some ways it doesn’t matter. By continuing to give financial aid to Lyons, Troy is still, in some way providing, thereby preserving his necessity in his son’s life.
But the onstage relationships between Troy, Cory, and Lyons aren’t the only father/son relationships driving the dramatic action. Troy’s interactions with his sons are shaped by his own father. His sense of responsibility toward his children is directly in response to how he was treated as a child. As the son of a sharecropper who only got deeper in debt even as he worked, Troy learned early on that he could rely on no one but himself. This is symbolized succinctly in the attempted rape of Troy’s childhood girlfriend by his father. It is the turning of the caretaker on the child, the shattering of the trust inherent in the familial bond.
In the end, Troy’s relationship to his children is complex and layered. In that way, it is very human. He struggles with wanting to fulfill his responsibilities to his kin while wrestling with a past full of missed chances and regret.
The film adaptation directed by and starring Denzel Washington hits theaters on December 25.