The Grand Design of FENCES - Part II
Today, we continue out InDepth InterView of the ten-time Tony-nominated revival of August Wilson's FENCES, starring Viola Davis and Denzel Washington, with a focus on the creative team's favorite moments and how they define the lead characters of Troy and Rose for themselves. Additionally, they contribute a thorough discussion of the music and sound design, as well as illuminate all of the attributable effort that went into the set and costume design of this masterful production of the play currently playing on Broadway.
Be sure to also check out the soundtrack of FENCES composed by Branford Marsalis below!
The Wonderful World of Wilson
Constanza Romero: One of my favorite memories of August is when he was writing, say, a monologue. And, under his breath, he would be mouthing the music of the words and in that finding the words for the different beats. He would perform it while he was writing it. He was a ham. He was a great performer... Any place in any of his plays he would know verbatim.
Branford Marsalis: The most poignant scene to me is the end. It's very Shakespearean. Oftentimes, you know, Shakespeare gives the greatest words of wisdom to the fool. Troy successfully made everyone believe the image. Now, Troy is dead and you have all these people completely unable to grieve for him. Completely, emotionally locked down and traumatized by him. Hurt by him to the point where no one can grieve for him. And then his mentally handicapped brother - as a result of the war - his brain-damaged brother is gonna play the trumpet to get Gabriel to open the pearly gates. So, he blows in the trumpet three times and only air comes out. So, then he drops the trumpet and he starts to grieve the loss of his brother. He's inconsolable. And, in his yell, the miracle occurs and the pearly gates open. It's so emotional.
Brian MacDevitt: I think the very first meeting we had, I met with Santo and Kenny. Kenny shared a story about being at the funeral of a friend's kid, a young girl who had died. Everybody there knew that she loved rainbows. There was a moment that happened at the funeral, to him and everyone there, it made believers of them.
Kenny Leon: The last moment of the play is sort of a supernatural moment. Some of that we have to keep trying. In my mind, and I kept telling Brian, "It looks like this! It looks like this!" I wasn't articulating it properly and he kept trying different things. Then, finally, he hit it. He hit on what I wanted at the end: the light had to be more on the actor's faces. They see a miracle. They see God reaching his hand through the sky, pulling Troy through the sky. The audience doesn't see that. We see the actors see that. So, what does that look like? On top of that, all of these characters have aged, since its seven years from the beginning of the play to the end of the play. All of them have aged a little bit. Bono is using a cane now. Rose has a little gray in her hair. The youngest son is in the Marines, with a Marine uniform on. But, then, Gabe - who is his mentally retarded brother - how do you do that? This guy wakes up everyday thinking he is the Archangel Gabriel in the mental home, what does that look like? So, we have to keep doing something with his clothes. So we thought, Wow, let's put him in this long hospital gown from the mental hospital, but let's put him with the coat he always wears because he always thinks he's an angel. So, that coat is his wings, to him. So, we had to keep trying different things for the way Gabe looked, the way the lights looked so we could perfect that final moment. It took everybody working together to pull that off.
Santo Loquasto: It's amazing, that final moment.
Constanza Romero: The character of Gabe is my favorite character. When I was drawing them all, I said, "Well, I have to draw the coveralls for Troy, I have to draw..." You know, a whole bunch of things. My hand just couldn't wait to draw Gabriel because I just had this image of a warrior. You know, he comes back from the war so he's wearing a World War Two overcoat. But, the way he wears it is very loose on his shoulders. He walks kind of fast through his neighborhood. In my mind, I saw the coat functioning like wings. Like Gabriel, the wings not outstretched but down. Sort of pacing through the neighborhood, no one sees that in him but he sees that in himself and that's what makes it real. Of course, he's got the yellow nit hat which, for me, was a subtle halo of sorts. At the end of the play, he comes in and he sheds the coat-slash-wings and he's there with a hospital gown that's very white. I wanted to contrast him in white with everyone else in black and have him be - in his mind - the prophet or the angel Gabriel on the judgment day. Be that sort of figure. That's why I'm really happy with the costume choice. You know, he's central in that white shirt. You know, he tries to play the trumpet and the trumpet is not his vehicle. His open heart is sending Troy's character to the gates of Heaven.
Brian MacDevitt: What we wanted to do was create something taken from nature but because of the timing of it - the time and the place that the sky opens up... You can make the equivalence between God and nature. It doesn't want to be another form of God, nature is God enough. It's all about the timing of it. It's more the fact all these people experience the same thing at that moment. It makes us feel, perhaps, this is Troy's entrance in to Heaven... One thing I think that does pay off is that final scene. As the show goes on, that beautiful rosy moment we feel in the beginning - that gorgeous afternoon sun - it gets more constricted as we go on; the light gets colder and more harsh, kind of paralleling Troy and his journey, and the journey of the whole family because of him. In the final scene, it is completely overcast. That choice was made not only because it is funereal - because people are in grief and in mourning and it's early morning before mass - and we chose overcast, but also because then it is the kind of dynamic that will then lead to a bigger payoff when the sky does open and the beam of light can come down through the sky and bathe them. It wouldn't have an impact if we didn't precede it. Through the show, to constrict the light more and more so when it does break open there is a sense of freeing. I think when someone suffers, death can be kind of a real life. And if we are constricting and constricting that final moment can be a more freeing place.
Constanza Romero: I have been absolutely in love with a certain part of FENCES. It's when Troy has his one-on-one with death. He has two scenes where he is talking face-to-face with death in the second act. I'm talking about the first one, after he finds out Alberta is dead. He says, "All right, I'll tell you what I'll do: I'll build a fence around this yard, see?" That to me, is sheer and utter - it's when I feel like I'm in another place. The moment is transcendent. I think that Denzel does such a fantastic job with that. I think that every single bit of that performance August would have loved. In that moment I see August. He acts it with the same amount of passion; with strife, with inner-angst, wielding the biggest human sword that he can against the powers that be. I see the same passion that August lived with in that moment of the play.
Nevin Steinberg: I think it's the moment where Troy says, "God never set a time called too early." It's the acceptance of him having been excluded from living his dream playing baseball, major leagues. That, to me, is poetry. It's poetry of a completely different kind. It's a perfect phrase, a perfect summation, of that kind of justice. This play doesn't let you forget that it's full of poetry. And this production is so elegant and so clean, it really reveals all those moments beautifully.
Branford Marsalis: Watching over the play as Bono turns from a really loyal friend to Troy to him realized Troy is a selfish person. A taker. He's funny, he's obviously very bright and brilliant but he's seething with rage and anger underneath and he takes from everybody without giving anything back in return. So, to watch Bono make that conversion to where he actually has contempt for Troy, that was an amazing transformation to watch.
Kenny Leon: I have so many favorite moments in this play. I love in this play when Denzel and Stephen come in at the top of the show and come around the corner and they're just smiling and enjoying each other and the audience goes and immediately bursts into applause. It's a good coming together of where the audience is and where the characters are. So, I always smile at that moment because they're smiling as characters but the audience is just happy to see Denzel Washington onstage and it's a great moment. I love all the moments with Viola and Denzel. They're great. There's tremendous sexuality in this production of the play that I haven't seen in others so the sexuality between them - the fun and the life and the beauty in their relationship in act one is just amazing to watch. I love that. I also love the final moment in the play, not to give anything away. If I had to pick one, I'd have to say it's the joy of watching the relationship between Troy and Rose and their love of each other and them being in love. It's a beautiful thing.
Santo Loquasto: My favorite moments... I guess they are the big Viola moments. When Troy tells her he is going to be a daddy. That whole scene in the second act. I mean, she is so without him. And how he has justified this in his mind, as if it's right. It's so interesting how that man, how Troy really worked. It's fascinating. I loved watching that scene and watching her respond to it.
Constanza Romero: August really liked actors who could tap into the characters and make it their own. Tap into themselves. He wanted actors who would really treat his characters with respect and dignity.
Nevin Steinberg: I think audiences have different expectations now than they did a few years ago. In this case, Denzel and Viola and everyone up there make it a priority to be heard. I know Denzel is a great stage actor. There is no doubt. As anyone who sees FENCES can attest, thinking a Hollywood actor can't be on Broadway and can't project and can't be heard, they'll all turn completely to stone when they see Denzel!
Moments of Pure Troy
Constanza Romero: [James Earl Jones Vs. Denzel Washington] Oh, are they different. Oh, my gosh! I think it's different times. For example, the original version was in the ‘80s and it was directed by a whole different type of director. Now, Kenny Leon is staging it with Denzel Washington. Totally different actors. It's a sign of how powerful FENCES that two actors can do it in such different ways. One of my favorite things about this production of FENCES on Broadway is hearing people come in cheering and going over-the-top about Denzel. When they stand and clap and give standing ovations at the end of the play, it's for Denzel Washington playing Troy in this play that is unbelievable. That's why people are standing. It's almost like a journey from the celebrity culture - you know, people idolizing celebrities and going crazy over Denzel Washington - and all of a sudden they have a theatre experience and they are moved by his performance in this amazing play.
Branford Marsalis: I tried to understand the emotional mentality of Troy. How apropos the title FENCES is because everything he loved and valued he put a fence on to block it away from himself.
Constanza Romero: In Troy's costumes there are moments I see August. There's no question.
Kenny Leon: Unlike most people, Troy is a man who looks at himself and looks at life straight on. That's his flaw. He's an imperfect human being like all of us, but he is trying to be honest with himself. Even the opportunity to lie about the infidelity, he does not because that's not his character trait. His character is a person who tries to tell the truth and tries to treat people fairly and he's trying to understand and discover life as he moves through it and he's trying to deal with those demons of his past. The way his father raised him. He's trying to get rid of Lily's death, and for the most part he's successful. But, ultimately, he never overcomes that.
Constanza Romero: I think that a whole new generation needed to know about August Wilson. There are people who have been reading the play in high school or college but they never had experienced either a production or a really first-rate theatre experience like is being given at the Cort Theatre. I think to see a talent like Denzel Washington do Troy in such a beautiful, well-rounded way. You know, Denzel hits so many notes in his character. It's amazing to see how an actor can stretch himself and take risks.
Rose Up & Sing
Kenny Leon: She loves her man. She's a great mother. Like all of us, maybe her life has been disappointing at some times, but I think she's still full of life. I'd describe her as full of life. Then, she sort of confronts the events as they happen to her, head on. She's also a courageous, strong person. A woman of clarity. If you take that line Gabe says to her, "Hey, Rose, I brought you a flower, it's the same flower like what you is." I think Rose the character is symbolic of the flower rose, she has the soft petals but also the thorns on the stem. But, ultimately the rose is a beautiful thing.
Constanza Romero: I see her as a woman of her time. She's someone who put a lot of dreams and hopes and expectations in her man. At the beginning of the play, in a way I want to shout, "You guys have it really good! Don't change a thing!" Just like us in our lives, we don't know what we have until it's gone. (Pause.) Rose's journey through the play is beautiful to me. She does have enormous disappointment in the person she has put all of her hopes and dreams on. But, I think that the love never goes away. I think Rose embodies the love that one human can have for another despite their flaws. Despite their disappointments. Despite the wrong direction that their lives may take. I mean, she's angry with reason. It shows that there is a certain kind of removal of her heart from Troy. But, at the end, we see that her embracing the new child has perpetuated love. She gives the best of herself to Troy's daughter. And, with that - I am positive - comes forgiveness. I think redemption comes through Rose and through Cory. I think she's a great example of love.
Branford Marsalis: She was always fearful of the disappointment. Once the disappointment has been expressed from her... The pent up anger from all the times she denied herself - and I don't mean she denied herself a new dress - just the times she didn't speak up for herself and she should of. The times she let Troy let all the air out of the room and she didn't speak up for herself and didn't leave room for herself. She thought it would be worth it in the long run. All these years of disappointment explode. To play it as an angry moment, though, it would be farcical to do it like that.
Constanza Romero: In my process of designing the costumes I really thought of a Technicolor film. You know, with all the juiciness. All the colors enhanced. The colors are juicy like ripe fruit at the very beginning of the play. The beauty within this play, the last scene takes place at a funeral. The colors have been stripped. Most of the characters are in dark clothes. It's the 1960s. Rose is wearing a very typical two-piece, very plain dress from the 60s. For me, I also wanted to echo - just in a very small way - you know, the widows that we know of the 60s were married to heroes, big men. Like Coretta Scott King. These are women that were widows and in morning for American heroes. I really wanted to give Troy a hero's farewell. He is a big man. He lives big. He's all of us put together, in our flaws and in our glories. The song says it all.
Words & Music
Constanza Romero: At the opening I turned to Branford and I said, "August always wanted the music to be an integral part of the work. And elevate the work." Because of Branford's knowledge of history and because he is such a creative composer and he knows what they are talking about onstage, he was able to do exactly that. August isn't here, but Branford was really elevate the work in such a beautiful complete way. It really sounds like the way August always wanted the music to sound in his plays. NS: We didn't get to do much work with Branford in the studio because he did most of the recordings in North Carolina. We did coordinate with him and his engineer about the delivery system of the music into the theater and how to best bring together the components of the pieces he was writing so that we could recreate them in the theater in a way that was satisfying.
Nevin Steinberg: I think all the music is beautiful. When I found out that Branford was finishing out the piece and we were getting to work with him, of course I was thrilled. It was his first Broadway show. We spent a tremendous amount of time making sure that we were going to do justice to the music Branford had written. There's a couple of pieces in the play where some of the music that Branford had written took a little longer to develop thematically than was allowed by the transitions that were timed for the scene changes and things, and the ending. We had to do some tricky editing to keep the integrity of the piece. That was a lot of fun, making that happen, so people could experience Branford's music. Him being a well-known composer and everything."
Branford Marsalis: Everything I wrote was original except for the gospel tune that August wrote into the play called "Jesus Build The Fence". They said they wanted music for the scene so I hired one of the singers at my school who sings gospel and we recorded two versions of it. They liked it very much. It went over very well.
Constanza Romero: The song about blues is a great example. He's taken this blues song and added a whole new life to it and made it part of the history and part of the mythology about Troy. It's the song that brings about Troy's redemption, or at least carries the best part of Troy into the lives of his children.
Nevin Steinberg: Most of our work happens doing the tech process. On a musical you are sort of reactive. You are trying to communicate the live experience to people. In a play, it tends to be the opposite. You have to bring a lot more content to the table and ideas about how sound is going to tell the story. We have some very good sessions with Branford and Kenny about how it was all going to work.
Kenny Leon: The music worked because of Branford. You're talking about almost an R&B, sort of jazz feel. Here you have a saxophonist, that's an instrument that folks aren't expecting in this particular play. They're expecting all-out blues with an electric guitar and drums and piano. You're not expecting this saxophone thing. So, in order to pull that off, you have to have the lights working in conjunction with that music. So when the stage manager is calling for lights in that particular scene, it has to be at the exact time that Denzel slams the door, then the piano comes in, the sax comes in, then the lights go - they all must be coordinated together. The lights are helping the music, they are helping the audience feel the way I want them to be. That's the way to pull off a music cue.
Constanza Romero: There was always music playing. He loved the blues. Sometimes just a line from a blues song... He liked traditional blues. Not necessarily the jazzy blues or the electronic blues. He liked the recordings from the 1940s. He always had them on.