What’s Up With the Ending?
The final moments of Fences are pretty darn awesome. On the day of Troy's funeral, his brother Gabriel returns to open the gates of heaven for him...and succeeds. Gabriel suffered a head wound during World War II and now has a metal plate in his head. The man thinks he is the archangel Gabriel. Throughout the play he's gone around talking about judgment day. Gabriel always carries around a trumpet and says St. Peter told him to blow the horn when it's time to open heaven's gates for the day of judgment.
So Gabriel decides that the day of his brother's funeral is the day of judgment for everybody. He triumphantly raises the trumpet to his mouth and blows as hard as he can. Sadly, nothing comes out. Stage directions tell us that "There is a weight of impossible description that falls away and leaves him bare and exposed to a frightful realization" (2.5.113). We're not told exactly what this realization might be, but we suspect Gabriel may have just realized that he's not actually an angel.
Then an amazing and beautiful thing happens. We're told that Gabriel begins "A slow, strange dance, eerie, and life-giving. A dance of atavistic signature and ritual" (2.5.113). Whoa, big word alert! In case you didn't know, "atavistic" means "reverting to or suggesting the characteristics of a remote ancestor or primitive type" ( source). The word "primitive," and even "atavistic," can have offensive or racist connotations when it refers to race. But we don't think Wilson means anything like that, we think he means something closer to "the return of a trait or recurrence of a previous behavior after a period of absence" (source). So what makes this strange dance so atavistic?
Of course, the play doesn't say specifically, so we can only speculate. However, our theory is that the behavior refers to Gabriel's essential African-ness. Notice that in his mind he has become a Christian figure – the archangel Gabriel. He spends his days lost in a fantasy world based on Christian figures and places, like St. Peter and Heaven. It's important to note, though, that when Africans were first brought to America as slaves they weren't Christian. They had a diverse background of beliefs that were completely separate from the European Christian tradition of their white slave masters. Over time, many of these tribal rituals and beliefs were lost as the slaves were indoctrinated into European culture.
When Gabriel's trumpet fails to make a sound, you could interpret it as Christianity itself failing him. When Gabriel begins his dance, he reaches within himself and finds a dance hidden inside him, a dance buried by centuries of white oppression. This idea that African Americans should reach beyond the Christian tradition they grew up in and find the strength of their African-ness is found in many of Wilson's plays. In The Piano Lesson, for example, a woman calls on the sprits of her ancestors to exorcise a ghost when the local preacher's attempt fails. In Joe Turner's Come and Gone, a man exorcises his personal demons by ritualistically reliving the middle passage, which took some many slaves across the Atlantic.
Gabriel caps off his tribal dance with a wild and howling song. By the time he's finished, we're told that the "the gates of heaven stand open as wide as God's closet" (1.5.113). It looks like Gabriel has opened the way for his brother by finding the place in himself that's still connected in some instinctual way to Africa. It's quite powerful that Wilson chooses to end his mostly realistic play with this moment of magic. In the play's final seconds, the characters reach beyond their hard-scrabble lives and briefly touch the divine.