August Wilson’s written introduction to the first scene informs us that the play takes place in 1957, and that Troy is fifty-three years old. Having a conversation, he and Bono enter the yard outside Troy’s house. Wilson writes that, of the two friends, Bono is the “follower,” and that his dedication to their over thirty-year friendship is based on his respect for Troy’s honesty, work ethic, and strength—all things Bono wants to embody himself. Further, we learn that it’s Friday night—payday—the one night when, weekly, the two friends get together to drink and converse. Wilson writes that Troy typically talks the most and, though he can be quite vulgar, he sometimes becomes highly profound. Wilson also reveals that the two work as garbage collectors. Wilson explicitly describes Troy as being a black man, and we get the sense that Bono is as well.
Already, Wilson gives us a feel for the often excessively large nature of Troy’s presence. As in most of his relationships, Troy takes up most of the space of his friendship with Bono—and Bono willingly accepts this, viewing Troy as worthy of his devotion. Yet, ironically, Wilson tells us that Bono values Troy for his honesty, when this is precisely the quality he seems to fundamentally lack, as we see later in the play, when it’s revealed that Troy has an affair with Alberta. Bono perhaps sees in Troy something that he’s really not—but rather the ideal personality which Bono wished he himself had.
The play begins by Bono accusing Troy of lying. Troy is telling a story about a black man—Troy actually refers to him as a “nigger”—who, when he was carrying a watermelon beneath his shirt, was questioned about the watermelon by a white man, Mr. Rand. But the man carrying the watermelon denied having a watermelon on him, and, in response, Troy says that Mr. Rand said nothing, figuring “if the nigger too dumb to know he carrying a watermelon, he wasn’t gonna get much sense out of him.” Troy claims that the man carrying the watermelon was “afraid to let the white man see him carry it home.”
Here, we see how hate speech used against black people is used by people like Troy—a black man—to describe other people of color. This shows how racism influences Troy’s very language, despite him also being oppressed by it. Further, Troy’s story about the man carrying the watermelon exposes an instance, even if it’s not fully explained, of a black man’s fear and nervousness before the authoritative gaze of a white man.
Troy and Bono’s conversation continues, and Bono says that the same man who was carrying the watermelon had come up to him and said that Troy was going to “get us fired.” Bono told him to go away, and the man called Troy a “troublemaker.” Troy implies that the man was mad because he saw a union representative (likely for the black garbage collectors) talking to Mr. Rand (Troy and his fellow collectors’ boss). As Troy and Bono talk, we learn that Troy filed a complaint with Mr. Rand through the union about the fact that all the garbage-truck-driving positions are filled by white men, while black men are only assigned to carry garbage. Troy says he wants the owners of the business to give everyone the chance to be a truck driver.
The man who was carrying the watermelon is afraid that Troy’s complaint with the commissioner’s office at his workplace is going to get all of the black workers “fixed,” or fired—this shows how not every person of color working there shares Troy’s sense of confidence and purposefulness in protesting racial injustice. Further, the fact that Troy is willing to do such a thing—possibly putting his job on the line—shows how seemingly devoted he is to asserting himself and struggling for racial equality and equal opportunity in the workplace.
The conversation then shifts to discussing a woman named Alberta. Bono asks Troy how he thinks one of their fellow co-workers is “making out” with Alberta, meaning if he’s succeeded in having sex with her. Troy says their coworker is just as (un)successful as Bono and him—that he’s not had sex with her at all. Bono accuses Troy of eyeing Alberta more than other women, and of buying her a couple of drinks. Troy says he was just being polite. Troy gets Bono to admit that, ever since Troy married his wife Rose, he’s never chased after women. Still, Bono says that he’s seen Troy walking around Alberta’s house more than once. Troy says that, just because he’s been around there, it doesn’t mean anything. Bono asks where Alberta’s from, and Troy says Tallahasee. They both comment on how attractive they find her physique.
Here, we get the sense for the first time that Bono is suspicious of Troy’s fidelity to Rose. While Bono is usually passive in conversation with Troy, here he takes charge, and fully persists in pursuing his point, despite Troy’s attempt to deflect it. Bono doesn’t let up, and says he’s seen with his own eyes Troy’s misdeeds—that he’s seen Troy on Alberta’s property. Even though it seems like Bono has caught Troy red-handed, Troy still thinks he can argue his way out. This is a testament to Troy’s distorted sense of reality: he thinks he can cover up what’s blatantly true with the lies he weaves in his head.
As the two men continue to crudely discuss Alberta’s body, Rose enters from inside the house, walking onto the porch where Troy and Bono are seated. August Wilson writes a note in the script describing Rose as ten years younger than Troy, and having a devotion for Troy based on how she thinks her life would be without him: fraught with abusive men and their babies, partying and being on the streets, the Church, or being alone and frustrated. Wilson writes that Rose admires Troy’s spirit while either ignoring or forgiving his flaws, adding that she only recognizes some of them. Further, he writes that, while Rose doesn’t drink alcohol, she plays an important role in these Friday night “rituals” between Troy and Bono.
Rose’s entrance into the scene represents the influx of a totally different energy than that displayed by Troy and Bono. Rose embodies a maternal gentleness and compassion, a strong character and sense of fortitude, and a solid relationship with truth and reality—which often clashes with Troy’s storytelling. The fact that Wilson describes Rose’s devotion to Troy as being based on what her life would be like without him suggests that , in marrying him, she’s largely “settled,” compromising on her own dreams in order to have the safety of a stable marriage.
Rose asks the two men what they’re talking about, and Troy responds by saying that Rose shouldn’t concern herself, since it’s “men talk.” After embarrassing Rose by implying, in front of Bono, that he’s going to have sex with her later in the evening, Troy talks about when he first met Rose. He says that he told Rose he didn’t want to marry her, but just to be her “man,” and that Rose responded by saying that, if Troy wasn’t the marrying type, he should get out of her way so the marrying type could find her. Troy says that, when he returned to talk with Rose, he agreed to marry, but told her he was going to put a rooster in the backyard to act as an alarm system for strangers (other men) coming into their house. Troy says that, while he could watch the front door on his own, he was worried about the back door. However, when they first got married, he says, they didn’t even have a yard.
Troy’s treatment of Rose, implying that she has no place in his and Bono’s “men talk” and making lewd sexual innuendos, suggests that there’s a strict male-female divide in the power dynamics between the two (and in Troy’s worldview in general). Troy feels he has the right to tell his wife to butt out of conversation where a woman has no place, and to discuss having sex with her in front of other people, without her permission. Further, Troy’s mentioning of the rooster alarm system suggests his sense of possessiveness over Rose; this shows his hypocrisy, as he ultimately decides to sleep with another woman.
Bono chimes in and says that he and his wife Lucille’s first house also wasn’t in the best condition, saying that their outhouse let off a foul stench during the winter months whenever there was a breeze. Bono says that he wonders why he and Lucille remained in that house for “six long years,” but adds that he didn’t know he could do any better, and thought that “only white folks had inside toilets and things.” Rose replies by saying that a lot of people don’t know that they could be doing better than their current living situation.
Bono’s comment about not knowing he was capable of acquiring better living conditions for himself and his wife—that only white folks could afford to have indoor plumbing and other such amenities—underscores the economic limitations felt by and imposed upon black people, and the way those limitations inform how people like Bono view their own potential for upward mobility.
Rose says that Cory has been recruited by a college football team, but Troy says that he doesn’t want his son getting involved in football, since “the white man ain’t gonna let him get nowhere with” it. He then says that Cory should go get recruited in a trade where he can make a proper living, like being an auto-mechanic. Bono says that, if Cory is anything like his dad, Troy, then he’s going to be good at sports. He claims that the only two men who have played baseball as well as Troy are Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson—that they’re the only two men who have hit more home runs than Troy. Rose adds that “times have changed” since Troy played baseball—“that was before the war,” she says, and times have changed since then. Troy asks how they’ve changed, and Rose answers that “they got lots of colored boys playing ball now.”
Here, Troy’s outdated perspective on race relations makes its first appearance; though it’s outdated, his view on race certainly isn’t based on invalid premises, since he grew up in a different time with different circumstances, and experienced discrimination in the sports world himself. Still, Troy is unwilling to adapt his views and heed Rose’s suggestion that, indeed, times have changed and that opportunities for black players in the world of professional sports have opened up; instead of opening up his mind, Troy remains stubbornly fixed on the idea that Cory should enter a “proper” trade like auto-mechanics.
Troy then explains that, when he played baseball, his batting average was significantly higher than Seikirk, a player for the Yankees, and he implies that Seikirk enjoyed commercial success as a professional player only because he was white, while Troy, a better player, wasn’t hired to play because he was black.
Troy’s wariness about Cory trying to play football professionally is grounded in his own experience of racial discrimination in the world of professional baseball—where, at the time, skin color counted more than actual talent.
Rose tells Troy that he’s going to drink himself to death, and Troy responds by saying “death ain’t nothing,” comparing it to a fastball (a kind of pitch in baseball) that’s easy to knock out of the park. Rose then says that she doesn’t understand why Troy wants to talk about death. Troy then tells Rose that she’s the one who brought death up in the conversation, and says that he’s not worried about death: “I done seen him,” he says, “I done wrestled with him.” Troy says that he asked “Mr. Death” what he wanted, and looked him “dead in the eye,” without any fear. Rose then gives Troy’s story a context in real life by mentioning that he had pneumonia. Troy continues, saying that, right before he fought Death, he grabbed Death’s sickle and threw it as far as he could, and then they wrestled for three days and three nights. Troy concludes that Death had grown tired and given up, vowing to return someday for him. Troy says that, as long as he can keep up his strength, he’ll try to make it as difficult as possible for Death to take him.
Troy’s tall tale about Mr. Death is the first glimpse we get at his tendency to fantasize and stretch the truth—and how this contrasts with Rose’s insistence that he tell what really happened, i.e., that he had simply contracted pneumonia. This tendency to spin elaborate, fantastical stories shows another element of Troy’s hypocrisy: while he’s unwilling to let his son Cory pursue his dreams of football, deeming them as unrealistic, he’s perfectly willing to dream up lies and unrealities in his own mind. Further, Troy’s comment about standing up to Death—insisting that he’ll make it as difficult as possible for Death to take him—reveals the toughened and hardened way he approaches living in general.
Lyons enters the scene, and Wilson writes a note in the script describing him as thirty-four years old, a son by Troy’s previous marriage, and wearing trendy clothing. Wilson adds that, though Lyons thinks of himself as a musician, he’s more caught up in the idea of being a musician than in “the actual practice of the music.” Lyons, he writes, has come to borrow money from Troy, and he is unsure how much his exotic lifestyle will be criticized and ridiculed, even though he’s certain that he’ll be successful.
We get the sense, just from Wilson’s description, that Lyons view the world from a very different perspective than Troy, and that Troy likely has great disdain for Lyons’ choice of profession, since playing music is unlikely to rank among Troy’s list of ‘proper’ trades. Further, Lyons’ infatuation with the image of being a musician suggests that maybe there is something superfluous about his professional ambitions.
Lyons rejects Rose’s invitation that he stay for dinner, saying that he found himself in the neighborhood and thought he’d stop by for a moment. Troy, however, says that Lyons just came by because he knew it was his father’s payday. “Since you mentioned it,” Lyons then says to Troy, “let me have ten dollars,” promising to pay Troy back. But Troy says he’d rather die playing blackjack with the devil than give Lyons ten dollars.
Lyons’ lack of financial stability at the age of thirty-four highlights both the difficulty of his profession and also perhaps his unwillingness to pursue other options of making money in order to support himself as a musician—fixated on music, he refuses to be more practical about his finances.
Troy then claims to have seen the devil, saying that the devil sold him furniture when he couldn’t get enough credit. The devil, appearing at his doorstep in the form of a white man, promised to give Troy all the credit he wanted if he’d pay interest on it. Troy says that he asked for three rooms worth of furniture and that he told the devil to charge whatever he wanted. He concludes that he’s sent the devil 10 dollars every month for fifteen years; even though Troy’s probably paid off the interest by now, he says he’s afraid to stop paying. Rose says Troy’s lying, and that he got the furniture from a local vendor.
More of Troy’s fanciful storytelling emerges here, and we can see that his obsession with a figure of death—in the form of the grim reaper or the devil—is reoccurring. Once again, Troy’s recourse to spinning tall tales as a way of explaining his past gets reprimanded by Rose, who insists that Troy’s diversions from the truth always be corrected—she grounds his story in reality by explaining the real facts.
Lyons asks Troy again for ten dollars, and Troy hassles him, asking him why he isn’t working. Lyons tells Troy that he can’t find a decent job as a musician, and Troy says that he could get his son a job as a garbage collector, but Lyons says that that isn’t the job for him. Troy then claims that the reason he has money and Lyons doesn’t is because he isn’t living “the fast life” trying to play music. Lyons replies that he stays with music because it gets him out of bed in the morning—it’s his passion—and that he and Troy are two very different people. Finally, Rose convinces Troy to give Lyons the money, and Lyons leaves shortly after. Troy says to Rose and Bono that he doesn’t understand why his son doesn’t go out and get a decent job and take care of “that woman he got”—Bonnie, Lyons’s girlfriend.
Here, Troy isn’t being exactly out of line when he criticizes Lyons’ lifestyle—Lyons is thirty-four, after all, and still relies on Troy financially, and further, he could very well get himself out of his problems if he’d find at least a part-time job and earn a supplemental income to support his music. Lyons’ claim that he and Troy are two vastly different people is poignant: it emphasizes the fact that, not only do the two have different views on what matters most in life, but that they differ in some very fundamental way, down to their very natures—we can partly read this difference as the distinct time periods in which they grew up.
The first scene ends with Troy telling Bono that he loves Rose “so much it hurts,” and that he “done run out of ways of loving her,” so he has to rely on the “basics.” He tells Bono not to come by his house Monday morning because he’s “still gonna be stroking”—having sex with Rose.
Troy’s comment about having run out of ways of loving Rose seems to foreshadow the news we’ll later discover: that he’s been having an affair.