August Wilson and the long awaited triumph of "Fences"

Wilson's script was optioned in 1987. His requirement that a black director be attached held up production 27 years

Published January 28, 2017 10:30PM (EST)

"Fences"   (Paramount Pictures)
"Fences" (Paramount Pictures)

Watching the powerful new film “Fences,” a triumph for actor-director Denzel Washington and co-star Viola Davis (both have earned raves and Oscar nods), and a rare slice-of-working-class black drama to reach the big screen, I couldn’t help wonder what August Wilson would make of it all.

Surely, Wilson would appreciate the extraordinary ensemble acting and faithfulness to his screenplay, which he’d closely based on his stage drama “Fences.” And certainly the prolific and lionized author, who died of cancer at 60 in 2005, would be relieved to see his potent script reach the Cineplex at all — nearly 30 years after he sold the screen rights to a major Hollywood studio.

I know. I knew Wilson professionally as a journalist after we both moved to Seattle in 1991, and I had the privilege of interviewing him on numerous occasions and as Seattle Times theater critic reviewing his plays and hearing periodic progress (or lack of progress) updates on the long-wished-for filming of “Fences.”

First a few words about August. Esteemed nationally and abroad, he became a local Seattle celebrity, in the best sense. A gregarious, expansive and shrewd raconteur, he was an unmistakable presence about town, dapper in his tweed jacket, suspenders and porkpie hat, an unapologetic throwback in style and spirit to the beatnik/bebop era. He didn’t drive, and was often spotted on a bus or in his favorite coffeehouses and diners, cigarette in hand, greeting friends and strangers and penning his scripts in longhand.

One quickly discovered August was, like many of his protagonists, a riffing jazz and blues connoisseur whose instrument was conversation. He was unusually congenial and accessible to interviewers, while cannily embellishing touchstone anecdotes about his underclass youth in a racist America to fit the medium and his mood. He was also an activist, volubly urging more support for black theater companies (though his own works mostly originated in white-run theaters), and given to provocative declarations — most controversially, that African-American actors should only appear in roles specifically written for blacks (which left out Shakespeare, Chekhov and pretty much everything written before the mid-20th century).

Even when you disagreed with August, he was entertaining and gracious company, and, gradually, he became more open during our chats — about, among other frequent topics, his frustrating Hollywood adventures over “Fences.”

As a posthumous achievement, the movie reflects both the struggle of major African-American artists to crack the Hollywood glass ceiling on their own terms, and the modern challenges of capturing theatrical literature on film.

“Fences” was my first encounter with Wilson’s artistry, in the play’s pre-Broadway 1987 premiere in San Francisco. It would go on to New York and win a double-whammy Pulitzer Prize for drama and a best play Tony Award, the second of his plays to reach Broadway (after his breakthrough 1920s blues drama “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), and the third entry in his remarkable American Century Cycle, a planned 10-play, decade-by-decade rumination on 20th-century African-American history and identity. “Fences” would help establish Wilson as the nation’s most successful black Broadway dramatist by far.

In San Francisco, James Earl Jones memorably originated the role of Troy Maxson (the role Washington would inherit), a raging bull of an African-American Everyman, a Pittsburgh sanitation worker whose Falstaffian life force is undermined by psychological demons and festering bitterness over the racial barriers he believes stymied his athletic career.

“Fences” impressed me as a rough-hewn family study very much in the tradition of Arthur Miller’s seminal working-stiff tragedy from the late 1940s, “Death of a Salesman,” a prototype for many searing domestic dramas to follow. In Wilson’s script, set in the 1950s, here is another thwarted father taking out his own failures on a son and abusing the love of his loyal, patient wife. (The latter role was first performed by Mary Alice, and in the movie is played by Davis.)

Here is another unfulfilled American dreamer, another frustrated, aging “untermensch” who swears he could have been a contender. But of course, there were glaring differences between Troy and Willy — racially, culturally and historically. Willy is white; Troy is an African-American, enraged at an oppressive system that essentially barred blacks from competing in major league sports until the 1940s and ’50s. He deeply resented, too, how racism had trapped him for years in a low-rung job emptying trash cans astride a garbage truck.

And even more than the garrulous salesman Willy Loman, Troy was a talker — a yarn-spinner, a fabulist, a bullshitter and truth-teller. His gift for gab sounded theatrically unique to my ears; in cadence and sensibility it was at once poetic and pithy, steeped in blues and Afro-urban folklore, blunt and allusive, grand and gritty, self-conscious and organic. It was not the theatrical parlance of James Baldwin or Lorraine Hansberry, major writers whose earlier plays introduced important black voices and visions to Broadway. It was full of artifice and candor, and entirely Wilson’s own.

The sparring and rhapsodizing between characters, I later learned, were creations of a self-taught writer who dropped out of high school but read voraciously and listened (just as voraciously) to older men hold court in the bars and on the front stoops of the Hill District, the black Pittsburgh neighborhood where Wilson was raised and the setting for his plays.

By the late 1980s, the film industry was looking less and less to Broadway for material to adapt. But with its rich characters and flush of media attention and honors, it seemed a good bet that a movie version of “Fences” would soon emerge. It would be the first full-length record of a Wilson work, capturing what his widow and literary executor, costume designer Constanza Romero, now calls “one of August’s most accessible, most beloved plays.”

There was never much doubt “Fences” would have a fruitful, vivid life in the theater. I’ve seen four or five productions — recently, the splendid Tony-winning Broadway revival starring Washington and Davis (a warm-up for the film), and years ago, a performance before a small, rapt audience in a Rockford, Illinois, theater, where the only black people in sight were the actors, jobbed in 80 miles from Chicago.

The play was rooted in the black experience, yet the white patrons responded palpably and warmly to its earthy humor and primal urgency, as the complexity of Troy’s personality and his ferocious impact on those close to him unfolded. “Troy is just exactly like my father,” I heard a woman tell her companion at intermission.

Such cross-racial reactions are no surprise to Romero, who has guarded her husband’s legacy and the task of keeping his plays in constant theatrical circulation. In her view, Wilson told “American stories, and they contain a whole world of characters that relate and sometimes struggle with the different societal restrictions of their time.” She believes that for a diverse audience, they “still have so much to teach us about the time we are living in right now, about our own humanity and about our relationships with each other.”

Of course, a modestly successful movie reaches far more people than a regional or even a long-running Broadway production ever could. And Hollywood did quickly come knocking. In 1987, Paramount Pictures paid $1 million for Wilson’s screenplay as a future vehicle for Eddie Murphy, who wanted to display his acting range in the role of Troy’s bullied, defiant son Cory.

But there was a hitch: The studio intended to hire the commercially proven filmmaker Barry Levinson (“Rain Man”) to direct. Levinson is white, and though he “didn’t necessarily have [contractual] right to approve a director,” reports Romero, “August was very vocal about having his first feature film be directed by a black director.”

Levinson stepped aside. Paramount wanted both good box office and to appease Wilson, but Murphy declared, “I don’t want to hire nobody just cause they’re black,” according to Wilson, in a 1990 essay he wrote for Spin magazine.

“I am not carrying a banner for black directors,” he underscored. “I think they should carry their own. I am not trying to get work for black directors. I am trying to get the film of my play made in the best possible way.” That meant someone who understood the black experience inside out, who knew first-hand, the “[s]pecific ideas and attitudes that are not shared on the common cultural ground.”

So Wilson embarked on a years-long hunt for a director both he and the studio could live with. (Murphy eventually aged out of the role of Cory and was too young to play Troy.) Initially Wilson wanted his longtime Broadway collaborator Lloyd Richards to direct, but the studio balked at having a first-time filmmaker. So he met with and considered the crop of gifted black filmmakers breaking Hollywood racial barriers in the late 1980s and ’90s, including Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing”), John Singleton (“Boyz in the Hood”), Charles Burnett (“To Sleep with Anger”) and others.Yet for one reason or another, as elaborated in a recent New York Times account, none of them worked out. And even after leading film producer Scott Rudin signed on and generated new enthusiasm for the project, a deal still didn’t materialize.

In the meantime, Wilson kept writing for the theater. He collected a second Pulitzer Prize for “The Piano Lesson,” a mystical tale set in the 1930s, which was also filmed for TV and aired on CBS. And he continued to add more plays to his American Century Cycle – putting the finishing touches on his tenth and final entry, the 1990s political-themed script “Radio Golf,” in the months and weeks before his death.

Yet over the years, the failure to get “Fences” filmed kept nagging at him as unfinished business. In 1993 he told me he’d turned down two black directors who wanted to do it, because "it has to be the right person. I [still] think Lloyd Richards would be good for it. They say he's never directed a movie, but every day some white boy turns on a camera and directs his first Hollywood movie — so why not Lloyd?"

He also lamented that he couldn’t get a film deal for “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” another play in the cycle, about former Southern slaves and offspring of slaves coming north to Pittsburgh in the post-Reconstruction era. Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Danny Glover and Morgan Freeman had all expressed interest in acting in it, and Wilson ruefully noted, “We weren't talking about $45 million or anything. . . We were trying to get $6 million for a film with Academy Award winners! But we couldn't raise it."

Toward the end of his life he was carrying a cell phone when we met for coffee — surprising for an admitted technophobe. He apologized that he’d have to take the call if Scott Rudin was trying to reach him, because “we might finally have a ‘Fences’ deal.”

But it was long after he was gone that the prominent actor Denzel Washington, who was moved by “Fences” as a young actor seeing it in the late 1980s, had the clout and passion to realize Wilson’s dream — and to do it with commitment to a highly verbal script and the kind of cinematic intimacy one rarely sees in a mainstream American film anymore (one of the reasons why so few new plays make it to the screen these days).

“Denzel always understood that opening the play up more would detract from the claustrophobic confines of the Maxson house, and the limited mobility of Troy’s life,” Romero says. “Paramount always knew that this would keep its poetic language and the bulk of the text intact.”

Predictably, some film critics have complained that “Fences,” set almost entirely in the backyard and living areas of Troy and Rose’s modest row house, is too “stagey” and “talky.” And yet, in an era of hyped-up, hyper-expensive action fantasy flicks, this small-scale yet emotionally epic film has been landing on top-10 box office lists, selling better than “La La Land” and “Office Christmas Party,” and attracting, says Romero, “a lot of young people, older people, of many different ethnicities and races.”

“We have a great mix of people who are acquainted with his work, and others that aren’t. As Denzel said to me, ‘August Wilson now belongs to everyone; they’re all welcome to the party!'”

And Washington is just getting started with the Wilson cycle. He has made a deal with HBO to also executive-produce the remaining nine plays (including “Jitney,” which makes its belated Broadway debut this month), an endeavor sure to feature some our finest black actors, many of whom (like Davis, Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett) had career breakthroughs in Wilson plays.

If only Wilson could attend the party too. I can imagine him there, grinning, smoking and spinning more stories.

By Misha Berson

Misha Berson was the theater and arts critic for The Seattle Times (1991-2016), and is the author of several books, including “Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination” (Applause Books/Hal Leonard Inc.).

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

August Wilson Denzel Washington Fences Scott Rudin Viola Davis