One morning, in the midst of rehearsals for the movie version of “Fences,” three of the cast members, Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby and Stephen McKinley Henderson, roused a fourth, Jovan Adepo. “We’re going to breakfast,” they told him. “Tag along.”
In actuality, they were bringing the young Adepo, a British-born actor and graduate of Bowie State University in Prince George’s County, Maryland, on a far more meaningful mission. Together, they took a short ride to Greenwood Cemetery on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, where they located the grave of the man who brought them to this crucial intersection of their artistic lives: August Wilson, who wrote both the play and screenplay of the Pulitzer Prize-winning work.
“We whispered to him how much we needed his help and his guidance,” said Williamson, who plays the role of Gabriel, a brain-damaged World War II veteran in the film, directed by one of its stars, Denzel Washington. “It was one of the most important days in this journey.”
And especially significant for Adepo, who, unlike the other three, was entirely new to this piece, Wilson’s best-known drama for the stage – and astonishingly, only the first of his works ever to receive big-screen Hollywood treatment. “It was an incredible experience to have that moment of fellowship,” Adepo said. “It made me feel more part of the family.”
In more ways than one, a family is indeed what Washington and movie producer Scott Rudin had created for the film incarnation of “Fences,” which opens Christmas Day. For this breakthrough event in the illustrious production history of the work of Wilson – who died 11 years ago, at age 60 – a team was not so much hired as reassembled, to tell the tragedy-laced story of proud, disappointed Troy Maxson, his long-suffering wife and their embittered sons, living in a working-class Pittsburgh neighborhood of the 1950s.
The leading players, including Washington and Viola Davis as Troy and his wife, Rose, have been transplanted from a Broadway mounting in 2010 that won Tony Awards for both stars, as well as one for best revival of a play, under the direction of Kenny Leon. Only Adepo, as younger son Corey, and Saniyya Sidney, as little Raynell, freshly join the cast.
In this regard, “Fences” is something of a throwback to the days when film producers signed up Broadway actors to reprise their roles for the movie adaptations of major plays: Think of Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in “The Miracle Worker” or Marlon Brando, Karl Malden and Kim Hunter in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” (Vivian Leigh in the latter case replaced Broadway’s Blanche DuBois, Jessica Tandy).
Unusual, too, is the fact that the screenplay, written by Wilson, with some minor trims by fellow Pulitzer winner Tony Kushner, is entirely the dialogue Wilson set down, in that particular poetry of African-American aspiration that distinguishes him as one of the greatest dramatists the country has ever produced. Wilson, in fact, famously wrote a cycle of 10 plays, one for each decade of the 20th century, that includes such masterworks as “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “The Piano Lesson,” which in 1995 was turned into a film for television by Hallmark Hall of Fame. They speak, often eloquently, sometimes metaphorically and each in their own distinctive cadence, to the tragic and lighter-hearted struggles of black people, mostly in the cafes, boardinghouses and back yards of Wilson’s own childhood, Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
“Fences” takes place smack dab in the middle of the cycle, telling the story of a stressed family, economically and psychically, in the vein of Arthur’s Miller’s seminal “Salesman.” It was first performed on Broadway in 1987, with James Earl Jones as Troy, Mary Alice as Rose and Courtney Vance as Corey.
Troy is a former Negro League baseball star who failed to cross over in the time before Jackie Robinson managed to bring down the racial barriers of the white-only major leagues. Now, Troy is a garbage man, and a seething one at that. Having served some time in jail for petty crimes along with his friend and fellow sanitation man Bono (Henderson), Troy channels his simmering rage at his fate through betrayals of Rose and put-downs of Cory and an older son, Hornsby’s Lyons.
THE MEASURE OF A MAN
The play and the movie, though, are not entirely unsympathetic to Troy, who has had to provide for a household while living daily with his own crushing sense of humiliation. Wilson thereby asks us to measure a man not by his weaknesses, but by his sacrifices.
Washington, who, along with Davis, is receiving trophy-season recognition for his performance – both were nominated last week for Golden Globe Awards – says that Rudin first approached him several years ago with Wilson’s screenplay and an offer to direct it. “I realized I hadn’t read the play,” Washington says, “and then I called him back and said, ‘What about doing the play?’ ”
The revival’s triumphant run intensified interest in a film, and Rudin repeated the invitation for him to take the director’s seat. Washington, who had experience in that regard, having directed the movies “The Great Debaters” in 2007 and “Antwone Fisher” in 2002 – in which he also appeared – does not remember leaping at the opportunity.
“I think he put something in my drink,” Washington says, sardonically. “Directing is overrated,” he added. “Ninety percent is who you cast. The smartest thing was hiring the people we had the success with.”
Even with what sounds like a slightly jaundiced view, he dived into the assignment. To accommodate newcomers Adepo and Saniyya, a two-week rehearsal period was built into the movie’s schedule. “August Wilson has a voice that is like no other,” says Adepo, who gleaned much just by listening to older hands such as Henderson, a college professor of drama, ruminate on Wilson’s style and impact. “Stephen pointed out to me that he has a specific rhythm. You can snap your fingers to it, almost like jazz.”
As far as Washington was concerned, filming in Pittsburgh was a no-brainer. “It’s the only place I thought about shooting,” says the actor-director, who says he spent a bit of time with Wilson in the early 2000s, when he was writing “Gem of the Ocean,” the first play in the cycle and one of the last Wilson completed.
The principal action of “Fences” occurs in a narrow rowhouse and back yard pressed in on all sides by neighbors’ windows – a realistic setting that atmospherically enhances the physical world conjured by the play. The actors say they were moved by being at the geographical and spiritual ground zero of Wilson’s work. And for those who had played the roles on Broadway, the location felt especially like home turf.
“There’s an advantage at having played a role more than once,” Hornsby says. “Your understanding is greater; it deepens. But it didn’t change my approach to the character.”
Their workplace, as it were, proved to be such a focus of local curiosity that people in the adjacent houses would hang out on their porches and watch scenes being shot.
“You could smell the neighbors’ cooking,” says Henderson, one of the lifetime members of what might be called the August Wilson Repertory Company – a cadre of actors who have appeared in multiple productions of Wilson’s work. Both he and Hornsby, in fact, performed in a well-received festival at the Kennedy Center in 2008 called “August Wilson’s 20th Century” that showcased in staged readings all 10 of the plays in the cycle.
“There was nothing false around us,” adds Williamson. “You could hear the neighbors’ TVs on, too.” One neighbor so enjoyed the interaction during shooting, the actor says, that “Denzel would have to ask him to go back into his house.”
The movie, Washington says, allowed the filmmakers to supply a few embellishments. One scene, for example, helps to humanize Troy: Amid some terrible news that he delivers to Rose concerning his own behavior, we see him visiting his disabled brother, Gabriel, to help with his care. Filming outdoors, Washington could express more clearly the crucial passages of time. The camera, too, allows an audience to gauge the events of “Fences” more completely from each of the characters’ perspectives.
Washington’s relationship with Wilson’s body of work appears to be ongoing: The actor has disclosed that he’ll next direct “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” as part of a long-term plan to make movies of all 10 plays in the “20th Century” cycle.
Wilson, who once told me that he thoroughly enjoyed the input of actors to help him figure out exactly what characters need to say, would no doubt be pleased to hear how this first effort has turned out.
“What you see on that screen, that’s Denzel’s work,” Henderson says. “We all came knowing what we wanted to do. But what Denzel assembled, that’s the other half.”