Divided into two acts, Fences begins on a Friday night—payday for Bono and Troy—when the two friends engage in a weekly ritual of drink and conversation. As they talk, we learn that Troy has confronted their boss, Mr. Rand, about the fact that only whites are assigned to drive the trucks at their garbage collection company, while black employees are hired exclusively to carry the garbage. Bono then suggests that he’s suspicious of Troy’s relationship with another woman (Alberta) besides his wife. Further, Cory, Troy’s son, has the opportunity to play college football, but Troy is wary about his son playing sports because of his own past with racial discrimination in major league baseball. Troy also succumbs to his tendency to spin tall tales about his life, and starts talking about his encounter with “Mr. Death”—when he wrestled with the Grim Reaper. Rose, Troy’s wife, enters and reveals that he’s really talking about his battle with pneumonia.
Later, Troy and Cory work on constructing a fence which Rose has asked them to build, and the two clash over Cory’s desire to play football. Troy thinks that, as a young black man, Cory has no future in football, but says he will allow Cory to pursue football on one condition: he must work his job at the A&P store and juggle football practice at the same time. Even though Cory is scheduled to meet with a recruiter, who would present Troy papers which, if he’d sign, would secure his son a position at a college, Troy is difficult, and says he won’t sign anything unless Cory works.
Eventually, we learn that Cory never gets his job at the A&P back, and Troy—having found this out too—tells his coach to take him off the team. This enrages Cory, as the future he’d envisioned for himself has crumbled before his eyes. Troy tells him that his disobedience—in not getting his job back at the A&P—counts as a strike against him, like a strike in baseball.
When working on building Rose’s fence, Bono tells Troy that he thinks he should realize just how good and loving of a woman Rose is to him. Irritated by the fact that Bono feels the need to tell him this, Troy asks why Bono feels motivated to say such a thing. Troy eventually admits to having an affair with Alberta, and Bono tells him that he needs to find a way to make things right. He also says that he’s always looked up to Troy, precisely because of his wise decision to choose Rose over all the other women who were interested in him.
Soon after, Troy confesses to Rose that he’s had the affair with Alberta and that he’s going to be a father to her baby. Shocked, Rose can’t believe Troy would do such a thing at his age, and stands up for herself, blaming Troy for not sacrificing himself enough for the preservation of the relationship. Walking in on Troy and Rose fighting, Cory is angered at the sight of Troy roughly holding Rose by the arm, and fights his dad, earning yet another supposed “strike.”
Later, we learn that Alberta died when she gave birth to Troy’s baby, Raynell. Rose agrees to raise Raynell. Then, on another one of Troy’s Fridays, Troy and Cory end their relationship, in an argument over Troy’s infidelity to Rose.
The play then drops off for eight years—the last act begins at the advent of Troy’s death. The family—Cory, Lyons (Troy’s son from a wife before Rose), Rose, Raynell, and Gabriel (Troy’s brother, who suffers from a brain injury and thinks he’s an angel)—are gathered at the Maxson household, with Bono, preparing to attend Troy’s funeral. Cory, however, says that he does not want to attend—and Rose reprimands him, saying that Cory is obligated to go because Troy was his father, and that refraining from mourning his dad doesn’t make him into a man. Gabriel enters the scene and tries to play the music of spiritual exaltation with his “trumpet of judgment,” but no sound comes out. In response, Gabriel dances hysterically, and August Wilson writes, in a note in the script, that the gates to Heaven are opened.