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Feature: Building FENCES - A Journey From Stage To Screen and the Legacy of August Wilson

By: Feb. 26, 2017
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August Wilson.

That name is reason enough to deem FENCES an important work. More about the esteemed playwright later.

From the Broadway stage to the Pulitzer Prize, back to Broadway, and now as a film adaptation with four Oscar nominations, FENCES has riveted audiences for more than 30 years.

The film, directed by and starring Denzel Washington, is nominated for Best Picture, with Washington and Viola Davis nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress. The fourth nomination is for the drama's original playwright August Wilson for Best Adapted Screenplay. Wilson died in 2005.

Big Screen FENCES

FENCES focuses on Troy Maxson - Washington - a former Negro baseball league player, struggling to provide for his family in 1950s Pittsburgh. Bitter about working as a garbageman, the proud and stubborn Maxson is emotionally distant from his sons, Lyons and Cory. His long-suffering wife Rose - Davis - attempts to mediate the relationship between the father and sons, but Troy makes things difficult for all. Along with family strife, racial tensions also permeate the drama. As with all works written by August Wilson, the language of FENCES is a feast for the ears. Critic A.O. Scott, in his review of the film in the New York Times, opined, "few playwrights have approached his genius for turning workaday vernacular into poetry." Washington has said in numerous interviews his job as director was to "honor August Wilson"and allow his genius to shine.

Critical acclaim for the film adaptation has been widespread. A.O. Scott of the New York Times declared, "Troy is one of the indelible characters in American dramatic literature, equal to - and in some ways a pointed response to - Arthur Miller's Willy Loman." In the Los Angeles Times, critic Kenneth Turan said about the film "the combination of top acting and the powerful rhythm of the language in the drama's celebrated high spots absolutely holds us."

From Stage to Screen

This first big screen adaptation of a play by August Wilson is something to be celebrated in its own right. Co-produced by Washington and Scott Rudin, the motion picture version of FENCES arrives with a high pedigree. Washington and Davis costarred in the award-winning Broadway revival of the play during in 2010, directed by Kenny Leon. Both actors took home TONY AWARDS and the production won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play.

The original 1987 Broadway production of FENCES was also a triumph for Wilson, in a production directed by Lloyd Richards. James Earl Jones originated the role of Troy, with Mary Alice as Rose, and a young Courtney Vance as Cory. At the 41st Tony Awards, FENCES took home four spinning medallions: Best Play, Leading Actor, Leading Actress, and Best Direction of a Play. Supporting actors Courtney Vance and Frankie Faison were also nominated for Tony's.

From Poet to Playwright: August Wilson

August Wilson (1945-2005)
(Photo Credit:
Goodman Theatre)

When we consider FENCES as a play or film, all roads lead back to playwright August Wilson. Frederick August Kittel, Jr., the self-educated native of the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was born on April 27, 1945 to a German immigrant father and African-American domestic mother. Raised mostly by his mother Daisy Wilson, due to the absence of his father, Wilson had troubled experiences with school and eventually dropped out and educated himself by becoming a voracious reader in the local library. He worked menial jobs for many years in his youth, meeting an array of colorful characters, providing the inspiration for many of his characters later in his career.

After a stint in the Army in the early 1960s, Kittel began trying to make a living as a writer. He changed his name to August Wilson, to honor his mother, after the death of his father in 1965. Beginning his writing career as a self proclaimed poet, Wilson struggled for many years. Along with friend Rob Penny, Wilson founded the Black Horizon Theater in the Hill District where he made some early attempts at playwriting.

A move to Minneapolis in the mid-1970s, allow Wilson to kickstart his budding career. JITNEY - about men running an ad hoc taxi station - was the first of Wilson's plays to gain acclaim, earning the writer a fellowship at the Minneapolis Playwright Center.

The American Century Cycle

Wilson's next play after JITNEY would mark a huge stride in his professional development. MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM was accepted to the Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference in 1982. Inspired by Blues music and artists like Bessie Smith, the play is set in the 1920s, offering a look at the Black experience through an African-American playwright's perspective. At the O'Neill Center, Wilson was introduced to director Lloyd Richards who would become a pivotal figure in Wilson's career. Director of the original production of RAISIN IN THE SUN, Richards had a prolific career in theatre. The longtime dean of the Yale School of Drama, Richards would go on to direct six more of Wilson's plays.

JITNEY and MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM became the first two entries in what would become Wilson's cycle of ten plays centering about the African-American experience in a different decade of the 20th Century - hence the un-official name the American Century Cycle. Since all the plays are set in his native city, except for MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM (set in Chicago), it is also known as the Pittsburgh Cycle.

Throughout the cycle, Wilson combines history, fiction, poetic prose, musical influences, humor, religion and superstition in an sweeping depiction of African-American life, from 1900 to the 1990s. In 2000, Wilson described his inspiration for the cycles in the New York Times: "I wanted to place this culture onstage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us in all areas of human life and endeavor and through profound moments of our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves."

The plays in the cycle were not written chronologically and do not have direct relationships with each other, but the scope of the pieces gives a wide-ranging look at Black Americans through each decade.

Scenes from the current Broadway premiere of JITNEY:

The plays in the Cycle are (from the August Wilson Theatre website): The plays are listed below followed by the year he wrote them, the decade they reflect and a mini plot summary.

GEM OF THE OCEAN (2003) - 1900s - Citizen Barlow enters the home of the 285-year-old Aunt Ester who guides him on a spiritual journey to the City of Bones.

JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE (1988) - 1910s - The themes of racism and discrimination come to the fore in this play about a few freed African American slaves.

MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM (1984)- 1920s - Ma Rainey's ambitions of recording an album of songs are jeopardised by the ambitions and decisions of her band.

THE PIANO LESSON (1990)- 1930s - Brother and sister Boy Willie and Berniece clash over whether or not they should sell an ancient piano that was exchanged for their great grandfather's wife and son in the days of slavery.

SEVEN GUITARS (1995)- 1940s - Starting with the funeral of one of the seven characters, the play tracks the events that lead to the death.

FENCES (1987)- 1950s - Race relations are explored again in this tale which starts with a couple of garbage men who wonder why they can't become garbage truck drivers.

TWO TRAINS RUNNING (1991)- 1960s - Looking at the Civil Rights movement of the sixties, this play details the uncertain future promised to African Americans at the time.

JITNEY (1982)- 1970s - Jitneys are unlicensed cab drivers operating in Pittsburgh's Hill District when legal cabs won't cover that area, the play follows the hustle and bustle of their lives.

KING HEDLEY II (1999)- 1980s - One of Wilson's darkest plays, an ex-con tries to start afresh by selling refrigerators with the intent of buying a video store. Characters from Seven Guitars reappear throughout.

RADIO GOLF (2005)- 1990s - Aunt Ester returns in this modern story of city politics and the quest from two Pittsburgh men to try and redevelop an area of Pittsburgh.

Wilson's Death and Legacy

A few months after his final play, RADIO GOLF, opened, August Wilson lost his battle with liver cancer. He died October 2, 2005, in Seattle, Washington. Upon the occasion of his death, director Kenny Leon, quoted in the Associated Press obituary, said, ""We've lost a great writer - I think the greatest writer that our generation has seen and I've lost a dear, dear friend and collaborator." Leon added that Wilson's work, "encompasses all the strength and power that theater has to offer. I feel an incredible sense of responsibility on walking how he would want us to walk and delivering his work."

The 89th Academy Awards telecast will air live coast-to-coast on Sunday, February 26, 2017 (8:30 p.m.ET/5:30 p.m.PT) on ABC. Be sure to visit BWW for live coverage of the 2017 Academy Awards, with a theatrical slant.

Will you be rooting for August Wilson and the FENCES family on Oscar night? Let us know on Twitter @BroadwayWorld.