Imagine the scene. You are having a quiet day in your rundown but tidy bungalow in the depressed Hill District in Pittsburgh when the doorbell rings. There stands Denzel Washington, who shakes your hand, apologizes for the inconvenience and says he is going to be practically living on your street for a few weeks while directing and starring in a movie version of the late August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning “Fences.”
After such an introduction, “the people were ready for us,” Stephen McKinley Henderson recalls with a fond chuckle. “They welcomed us every morning early and were there with us late into the night. They knew these were the streets and the neighborhood that August walked before the world knew him as a playwright.” The Hill District is where the great playwright was born and raised. “This is where he got his inspiration to write.”
“Fences” opens in wide release Christmas Day with Washington and the radiant Wilson specialist Viola Davis, not to mention Henderson and practically the entire cast from the 2010 Tony-winning revival on Broadway. Henderson plays Bono, best friend of Washington’s Troy Maxson, a man-mountain of disillusionment and complex allegiances who was born too late for integrated major-league baseball and is festering as a garbage man in 1957 Pittsburgh.
Henderson has performed in eight of the 10 decade-by-decade plays in which Wilson chronicled black life — almost exclusively black life in the Hill District — in 20th century America. In other words, the veteran character actor intimately knows the countless men and women Wilson created before he died at 60 of cancer in 2006 — almost immediately after finishing the tenth and final work, “Radio Golf,” about people we have rarely known either on stage or screen.
Except for a 1995 Hallmark teleplay of “The Piano Lesson,” Wilson’s other Pulitzer winner, “Fences” will be the first chance to introduce his singular voice and revealing storytelling to non-theater audiences. Like “Piano Lesson,” this film has been adapted by the master himself, originally written several years before his death. But now, as Henderson aptly puts it, the confluence of the playwright and Washington is “perfectly positioned.” For a star of Washington’s impact to get behind this work is, in Henderson’s perspective, “thrilling.”
Washington, who has previously directed two other movies, is not just taking on Wilson as a one-shot adventure. He recently struck a deal with the Wilson estate for him to oversee the filming of the entire cycle. Most likely, “Fences” is the only one he will direct and star in for the big screen. The other nine will be on HBO with him as executive producer. Probably the next one will be “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” adapted by another Wilson expert Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who also directs the long-delayed Broadway premiere of Wilson’s “Jitney” in January.
Asked in a recent interview whether a white director could have directed “Fences” just as well, Washington shifted the question from race to culture. “Scorsese probably could have directed ‘Schindler’s List’ and Spielberg probably could have directed ‘Goodfellas,’ ” he told Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, NBA legend and social commentator in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “But it’s as much to do with the difference in culture as it is with race. We know what hair smells like when a hot comb hits it. That’s a cultural thing. We know what that smells like on Sunday mornings.”
In that same interview, Davis, who plays Troy’s wife, Rose, with deep, self-contained transparency, described Washington as an “actor’s director, which is very rare. . . . Denzel understands actors’ language, actors’ insight, just what makes us tick.”
Henderson agrees: “He was as prepared as any director I’ve ever worked with on film,” a list that includes Steven Spielberg and Spike Lee. “Denzel is mission-oriented and he put everyone else first, before he turned the camera on himself,” says Henderson about Washington’s “warts and all” portrayal. “I think he was stricter on himself than on anyone else.”
Then there were the rehearsals, which Henderson says were aimed at finding the freshness in a text that most of the actors had performed many times onstage six years earlier. “Denzel didn’t want us to keep bad habits that may have developed onstage.”
Wilson never did write what anyone would consider orderly plays. “Fences” is perhaps the most plot-driven and, unlike the later ensemble pieces, lends itself to having a star-driven protagonist. Wilson’s gifts were his words, his magnificent ear, his highflying monologues with the special rhythm of jazz. He put ghosts into traditional plays and magic into stories about jitney drivers and railroad porters, and gave us characters so alive we felt they continued whether we were there or not.
As Wilson told The Paris Review in 1999, he believed most people didn’t “really look” at a garbage man, “although they see a garbage man every day. By looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this black garbage man’s life is affected by the same things — love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives.”
He didn’t live to see how his language-driven work would transfer to the screen. But Henderson, who has been in Wilson’s world for decades, believes Washington is the man to make it happen. Meanwhile, he says, “If you’re going to play someone’s best friend, man, you can’t do better than to be Denzel’s.”
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis were both theater babies before being discovered by TV and movies. He studied acting at Fordham, did a little summer stock in the mid ’70s and appeared Off-Broadway in the Negro Ensemble Company’s premiere of “A Soldier’s Play” before his big break in “St. Elsewhere” in 1982. She bounced back and forth between Off-Broadway and Broadway since graduating from Juilliard in 1993. But she didn’t get her movie break until “Doubt” in 2008 and, of course, became a household name in 2014 with her ABC drama, “How to Get Away With Murder.” Here is a list of their Broadway appearances:
“A Raisin in the Sun,” 2014 Tony-winning revival. (Also with Stephen McKinley Henderson in a supporting role.)
“Fences,” 2010 Tony-winning revival, best actor Tony. (Henderson got a supporting nomination.)
“Julius Caesar,” 2005, shockingly bland as Brutus
“Checkmates,” 1988, far from memorable Broadway debut
“Fences,” 2010, best actress Tony
“King Hedley II,” 2001, featured actress Tony in another August Wilson drama
“Seven Guitars,” 1996, featured actress Tony nomination in another August Wilson drama
Also, a 2011 special citation for sustained achievement from the New York Drama Critics Circle