The first act of the play is a swirling portrait of Troy Maxson's life. We meet all the main people surrounding Troy. There's his best friend, Bono, whom he met while in prison. Now the two work together as garbage collectors and sip gin every Friday night. Then there's Rose, Troy's loving and dutiful wife. Lyons, Troy's son from a previous relationship, stops by to borrow some money. We also meet Gabriel, Troy's brother, who suffers from a World War II head wound and now thinks he is the archangel Gabriel. Last, there's Cory, Troy's son by Rose.
Wilson plants all the major conflicts of the play in the first act. Troy is trying to break the racial barrier at work by becoming the first black garbage truck driver. This conflict is actually quickly resolved as Troy wins his battle. We also get strong hints in the first act that Troy is having an affair with a woman named Alberta.
Ultimately, however, it seems that the main conflict of the play will involve Troy's son Cory. Cory has the chance to go to college on a football scholarship, but Troy refuses to sign the permission paper. Troy says he doesn't want his son to suffer from the same racial discrimination that kept Troy from being a pro baseball player. This tension comes to a head when Troy tells Cory's high school football coach that Cory can't play football anymore, which destroys Cory's hopes of going to college.
Things start to go really bad for Troy in the play's second act. When Alberta becomes pregnant, he's forced to fess up to Rose about his affair. Making matters worse, Alberta dies in childbirth. Rose agrees to raise the baby girl, Raynell, but says she no longer considers herself Troy's woman.
Not only does Troy lose his mistress and his wife, he also loses his best friend, Bono. We learn that the two men no longer hang out. This is partly because ever since Troy got the promotion to driver, the two don't work together anymore. More than that, though, it seems like Bono is really disappointed in Troy for having the affair. We also learn that Troy has had Gabriel put away in a mental hospital. Rose accuses him of doing this just to get half of Gabriel's disability check.
The play comes to a climax when tensions explode between Troy and Cory and the two go at each other with a baseball bat. Though Troy wins the fight, he loses his son forever.
The last scene of the play takes place years later on the day of Troy's funeral. We see Cory return home in a military uniform. He's gone out and made his own way in the world but is still struggling with the shadow of his father. He considers not going to the funeral, but is talked out of it by Rose. We're given hope that Cory is on the path to becoming his own man and forgiving his father when he and young Raynell sing a song together in honor of Troy.
The play concludes when Gabriel returns. He tries to blow his trumpet to open the gates of heaven for Troy. When no sound comes out, he does a ritualistic dance and chant. In the play's final moment, we're told the gates of heaven are wide open.