Time is running out to check out Denzel Washington’s powerful performance in the hit revival of Fences.
His acclaimed role as patriarch Troy, in the first Broadway revival of August Wilson’s classic drama, has earned him amazing critical raves, sold-out performances, and a prestigious Tony Award for Best Actor in a Drama. Fences is running at the Cort Theater until July 11.
After a five-year lapse from the New York theater, the two-time Oscar winner (Glory and Training Day) and New York metro area native has returned triumphantly to the stage. Now, its under the direction of Kenny Leon, who won acclaim bringing Sean Combs to Broadway in the Tony winning revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun. Leon, now Broadway’s leading African-American director, was mentored by both Wilson and Lloyd Richards, Wilson’s longtime director who headed Yale University’s drama school and directed the original production of “Raisin in the Sun.” Leon, the director of August Wilson’s “Century Cycle” of plays at the Kennedy Center, had been nominated for Tony Awards for August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” and “Radio Golf.” Through his brilliant production of “Fences,” the play picked up a coveted Tony Award for “Best Play Revival.”
Weeks before the star-studded opening of “Fences,” I found myself sitting at a roundtable interview at Sardi’s Restaurant with Washington and the cast. It gave me flashbacks to attending a special 1987 press dinner with August Wilson, James Earl Jones, director Lloyd Richards and the original cast of “Fences” at the Alconquin Hotel, another legendary theater gathering space.
I had covered Washington during his New York Off-Broadway theater days at the Negro Ensemble Company and Woodie King’s New Federal Theater. Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Washington was considered a major New York theater actor. He was a leading actor in high profile Off -Broadway productions like his Obie Award -winning performance in the Negro Ensemble Company production of Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play, which earned a Pulitzer Prize (he revived his role on film in “A Soldier’s Story”). Portraying Malcolm X in Laurence Holder’s “When The Chickens Come Home to Roost,” produced by Woodie King, mesmerized audiences, including a young Spike Lee, who later cast Washington in his Oscar-nominated role of Malcolm X.
Yet his Broadway turns in the Ron Milner-Woodie King production of “Checkmates” and later in the drama “Julius Caesar” received little accolades.
The idea to come back to the New York stage began when Hollywood producer Scott Rudin brought Washington a screenplay of “Fences” and tried to persuade him to make the film. Instead, it compelled Washington to read August Wilson’s play.
“I went and read the play and cried. Then laughed. It’s a great, great, great, great play,” recalled Washington, casually dressed in jeans and a tee shirt and still strikingly handsome in his fifties.
“Very rarely to you get to work and interpret the work of a master. A grand master. And August Wilson is one. He is Eugene O’Neill. He is Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. It’s a masterpiece,” Washington stated. “I’ve been around. I’ve read a lot of plays and screenplays. “Knowing he’s gone and I fortunately got a chance to meet him. You can feel him. His plays are spiritual.”
The international movie star likes his new role being back on the New York stage. “What I love about theater and what I love about it now, given the position that I’m in, is that it gives me a chance to be one of the guys,” he stressed. “I’m another member of the cast. I have a role to play. This is what I love.”
“This is how I started as an actor in the theater right up the block at Lincoln Center,” he explained. “When I left New York in 1982, I was doing a Pulitzer Prize winning play. I had just done When The Chickens Come Home to Roost and followed that up with A Soldier’s Play, which won a Pulitzer Prize. I left to go to LA to do what I thought was a 13-week job called St. Elsewhere. Four kids and 25 years whatever years later, I started working my way back. I never really felt that LA was my home. New York is my home. Now we have a home here.”
Although at 55, he is a similar age to James Earl Jones, when Jones created Troy on Broadway, Washington brings a different type of theatrical magnetism to the role.
“They are specific about this African American family, but the themes are universal. The husband and wife relationship, the bitterness of the husband about not being successful in life, dreams deferred, and the father and son relationship,” said Washington. “All of those themes-black, white, blue, green and yellow-we all relate to them.”
Viola Davis, who portrays wife Rose, was undeterred about possible comparisons with actress Mary Alice, who was in the original production. Davis is a Broadway star and August Wilson favorite. She won a Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards for Wilson’s King Hedley II and grabbed Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations for his drama Seven Guitars.
“It’s always easier when people have no expectations, because then you are always going to be surprised,” said Davis, who believes the audience has to be open. “You have to come with a blank slate and then you have to allow whatever the actors are doing to infuse you, to move you.”
The Julliard trained actress has been appearing in TV and films since 1996. She’s been featured in director’s Steven Soderberg’s Traffic and Syriana and Jim Sheridan’s Get Rich or Die Tryin.’ Also, she’s been popular with Black directors like Denzel Washington’s Antoine Fisher, George Wolfe’s Nights in Rodanthe and Debbie Allen’s Lifetime film The Fantasia Barrino Story: Life is Not a Fairy Tale.
Yet, it was her heartbreaking performance in the film Doubt as the mother of the lone African American child in a strict Catholic school in the sixties that earned her national acclaim. The scene stealing performance with Meryl Streep scooped up Oscar, Golden Globe, SAG and Critics Choice Awards nominations. Audiences can currently see her on HBO’s United States of Tara and the Tom Cruise movie Knight and Day. This summer, she plays Julia Roberts’ best friend in the highly awaited Eat Pray Love.
Returning to the work of August Wilson and creating such a poignant performance as Rose in Fences has won the actress raves and another Tony Award. “We all have a little Wilsonisque in us,” explained Davis. “Because it’s our experience. It an African-American experience. Our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers our grandparents.”