© 2024 WEMU
Serving Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, MI
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Fences': Where Washington And Wilson Finally Meet

A highly anticipated revival of August Wilson's Fences is opening on Broadway next week, with one of Hollywood's hottest actors -- two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington -- at its center. Standing next to him: Viola Davis, a Tony Award-winning stage veteran and an Oscar nominee for the 2008 film adaptation of Doubt.

For Washington, the idea to do the play was planted by producer Scott Rudin, who approached him in 2009 about starring in a big-screen version of Fences. Washington read the screenplay, and then decided he wanted to read the source material again. So he went back and had a look at August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

"And I'm like, 'Denzel are you crazy? You gotta do the play.' You know, now's the time, whether I do a movie or not," Washington says.

Now is indeed the time. At 55, Washington is the right age to play Troy Maxson, the titanic central character of Fences. It's a role James Earl Jones originated when the play opened in 1987 -- and one that earned him a Tony Award for best actor.

Troy has led a hardscrabble life, escaping an abusive father, spending time in the penitentiary for manslaughter, and finding his calling on the baseball diamond as a Negro League star. That success came a little too soon, though, for Troy to make the move to the major leagues, and when we meet him, he's been working for 18 years as a garbage man; he's bitter, and he feels trapped by his obligations to his family. A multilayered character, he tries to do the right thing, even as he hurts the people closest to him.

"I come in here every Friday," Troy tells his wife. "I carry a sack of potatoes and a bucket of lard. You all line up at the door, with your hands stretched out. I give you the lint from my pockets. I give you my sweat and my blood. I don't have any tears -- I spent them."

"He's flawed," says Kenny Leon, the play's director. "And that's the point of the play -- that we're all imperfect, we're all flawed human beings."

"It has to be -- if not the greatest part I've played, definitely one of the most complex," Washington says. "And the great thing about theater is you get to go deeper [each night]. There are no previews in film; you shot it. What you shot yesterday is gone."

Leon, whose job it is to help guide Washington on that exploration, has directed all 10 of the plays in Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle, a series that looks at the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century. He also worked with the playwright, who died in 2005, on the last two dramas he wrote.

"This is a great American play," Leon says. "Well-structured -- it has the poetry of August Wilson, it has those monologues August Wilson is known for. But it's in the same line of a Death of a Salesman or A Moon for the Misbegotten -- all those great American plays."

Davis, the Juilliard-trained actress who plays Troy's long-suffering but loyal wife, Rose, also got to work with Wilson; she won her Tony in 2001 for the Broadway production of his play King Hedley II, and was nominated in 1996 for his Seven Guitars.

"Somehow, he had an ear and heart and a talent to take in people and [to represent] a very specific world," Davis says. "The maids, the domestics, the garbage men -- it's so great that he found the poetry in the ordinary."

That's why the role hits home for Washington -- who once worked as a garbage collector himself, and who remembers the smells that came with his 22-square-block route.

"For the first time, for me as an African-American, it's my voice," Washington says. "Yet the themes are universal -- the father-son relation, the husband-wife relations. The themes are universal."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.