“There is a weight of impossible description that falls away and leaves [Gabriel] bare and exposed to a frightful realization. It is a trauma that a sane and normal mind would be unable to withstand. He begins to dance. A slow, strange dance, eerie and life-giving. A dance of atavistic signature and ritual. He begins to howl in what is an attempt at song, or perhaps a song turning back into itself in an attempt at speech.”
-August Wilson, Fences
Throughout Fences, Gabriel carries a broken trumpet and the brain damage he suffered in World War I. He believes, wholeheartedly, that he is the Angel Gabriel, and that he’ll use the trumpet to open the Gates of Heaven on Judgement Day. When his older brother dies at the end of the play, Gabriel finally tries to blow the broken trumpet. He’s waited for this moment for more than twenty years. It has to work. He knows it will. It doesn’t.
When I first read the end of Wilson’s play, I couldn’t figure out what was happening. I looked up the scene online, and watched the end of the movie. In the movie the trumpet just works: we get the religious answer that Gabriel believed in. We get the parting of the clouds, the shining of the light. But in the play, Gabriel gets silence. He gets an empty space where he thought there was the floor. I thought about this more and more. I started to fall in love with it, because afterward, Gabriel gets to realize that what he believed in wholeheartedly is not the same as what there is in the whole of his heart.
Troy, Gabriel’s older brother, is trapped by the ways he sees the world. He’s trapped by the prejudice that others bound around him. He’s trapped by how he’s been hurt. When Troy’s son asks, “How come you ain’t never liked me?” Troy responds, “Who the hell say I got to like you?” He adds, “I owe a responsibility to you.” That’s the same thing Troy says while trying to understand his own abusive father: “he felt a responsibility for us.” Troy can’t stop reaching towards the only concepts he understands, the only patterns of interaction–between men and women, fathers and sons–he’s ever learned. These patterns pull him apart.
Gabriel can see something new. Gabriel, the crazy brother, the lost soul, reaches out for the God he believes in–and finds nothing. He should break, but he doesn’t. He falls through the void of his expectations and lands in something else, something older. In August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, when a priest’s exorcism fails to stop the ghost haunting a family, an American child of slaves calls upon her own ancestors. Her ancestors, or her love for them, or her belief in them–or the history of her people, or her realization of something behind her own belief–does what the prayer cannot do. The ghost leaves. In Fences Gabriel dances. He goes back, back before his beliefs, back to ritual, back to movement, back to sound, and pours new life into the world.
Sometimes I try to build the tower of my theories taller. I try to put in windows, and look out from the new heights of my belief and understanding. Troy’s tower–like mine, sometimes–becomes a prison he will not, cannot leave. Beneath that tower of philosophy there is earth, and body; history, and blood. Gabriel’s tower comes crashing down–and beneath its foundation, he finds something that gives life. He finds more than he–or we–had yet understood. He howls into song and sings back into speech.