The Grand Design of FENCES - Part III

Today is the final installment of our three-part discussion of the three-time Drama Desk-winning revival of August Wilson's FENCES, currently playing to packed houses every night starring Viola Davis and Denzel Washington on Broadway and recently having scored ten Tony nominations, a sure bet to win many. In this concluding portion of the tapestry of a talk between the creative team of the production we discuss the legacy of August Wilson's work, insights into the greater themes of his plays and the plans for the play in the future - perhaps bringing it to film.

No One Works ‘Til The Writer Writes

Constanza Romero: Deadlines for August, well, he really didn't work well on someone else's timeclock. He never wanted to be constricted to anyone else's timeframe. Sometimes, though, he had to so, you know, hewould go down to his desk and work. But, he would always take more breaks than I thought he should take and I would always say to him, "Aren't you supposed to go down and work?" and he would say, "I don't have to do nothing!" He did not like to be told what to do. Ever. "I told have to be told nothin‘. I don't have to be nothin'!"

Santo Loquasto: It's very interesting, I mean, I had seen some of his work. I wish I had seen the recent revival of JOE TURNER'S COME AND GONE, it sounded so beautiful and eloquent, that production. It was always fascinating hearing Kenny talk about it, because Kenny, he would get so emotional, so passionate. It was also interesting to hear an African American talk about what it meant. He understood it in a - of course, it's racially informed, but - there was an emotional tone and how he felt the language really operated in a poetic way. This is a completely unaffected man talking about these things, there is no pretense about him. He really knows - and therefore I learned from him - how these speeches play out. And they play out like arias. Of course, get that from Denzel in those tough speeches that are so long. He really just goes after them, musically and emotionally. He knows how to toss them off, the way only a virtuoso alone can. In witnessing that, it reminded me of plays of August's that I had enjoyed and respected but didn't quite get in how the structure was supposed to operate. The same is true of the wonderful actor that plays Bono, and Viola. She's the real thing. They're just wonderful.

Nevin Steinberg: In this play, I was just touched by the language. Specifically, FENCES is remarkable because I feel like August Wilson told a story for anyone who had a family. Anybody who ever had a family. I was constantly moved by the poetry of the description of the words of these characters and how they treated each other and how they felt about each other and how they felt about the world around them.

Brian MacDevitt: The difference between this and JOE TURNER... I don't know. First of all, the words: they're are beautiful and they are real. I don't think anyone can come out of the theater and not talk about or think about of their parents, their bride, their relationship, their brothers, their sisters. It's about family life, family struggles. As a white guy coming to it, I find that it's completely universal. I know to a black person it's a whole other experience. For me, anyone who has had a child or been a child of somebody, this play speaks to them. I like to think of this play as a testament to how family evolution and healing can continue. I like to think from my own experience that subsequent generations - especially fathers and sons - have gotten better and more tender and more loving. I think part of that comes from growing out of less and less poverty and more and more understanding between fathers and sons. I have to believe in FENCES that Cory will be a better dad - if he has a son - than Troy was. People and families can heal and grow in a good way in the future. Cory can potentially be a great husband/partner/father because of his mother.

Kenny Leon: This time, I've directed FENCES. Every time I've directed this play it's been a huge success. I love the play and I love how there is a door for every single human being to enter this play. This is his most accessible play. If you have a brother, if you have a mother, if you have a wife, if you have a partner, if you have a son, if you have any kind of relationship, if you live in America; this is a play for all Americans. I always direct it based on who is playing Rose and Troy. In this particular production, you have someone as amazing as Denzel Washington who is at the right age at the right time to play this role, but who also has a certain youthfulness to him, a physicality to him, an athleticism to him that makes you really see the character in terms of being that star athlete. You can say, "Wow!" But, his approach to acting is so honest and authentic, he won't let you get away with being fake or phony with him. So, you put him with Viola Davis - and Viola is an actress that really delivers raw truth, raw emotion - so, if you have those two actors onstage they are going to demand you speak the truth. Then you build the rest of the cast around him. Hornsby is a leading man, but he is playing a smaller role because he wants to be in this production. So, because of how he has mined this character you learn more about Troy's relationship to his other son. Then, you find people like Stephen McKenley Henderson - who is the most overlooked actor in America - this guy has been doing it for forty years but he makes it seem so easy because all he does is open his mouth and the words come out like butter. I think I have a cast that really trust each other, trust me and are in search for the truth. They're not up there faking you our. They are out on that stage living the life of the character they are playing. They are strong from top to bottom. If this is about anything this is about teamwork. I'll give an example: I told them from the first day of rehearsal that the pace and the tempo must be right. I think that the first act should be under and hour and ten, the second act under an hour. And, wouldn't you know, every night on the stage manager's report: First act: an hour and five, the second: fifty-nine minutes. Every single night they deliver that tempo and pace because they work so well together. They're like a well-oiled machine. I always tell them - there's an August Wilson play titled SEVEN GUITARS - I say this production should be like a guitar. Every character - there are seven characters in FENCES - should be a string in that guitar. We have different notes to play, but we're the same instrument. I can close my eyes and I can hear the musicality of August's words, I can hear that one instrument every night and I can tell if its ever off. These actors have found the beauty and the richness of his poetry and the musicality of his language and it's a great thing to watch.

Nevin Steinberg: I had never seen FENCES until I read it for this production. We felt very lucky to be included in this.

Viola Davis: This play has come at the perfect time for me. I'm 44, I'm Rose's age. I've been married for 7 years, I've been with my husband for 11 years. So in the show, I am the dedicated wife, Rose, who has basically dedicated my life to him. I understand commitment, I understand wanting to fulfill your dreams. I understand fighting for oneself, fighting for a marriage.  It's really funny how a role just finds you at a certain stage of your life and this play of August Wilson's has come at just the right time of mine.

You Can Get Tetanus From It

Brian MacDevitt: Well, I did JOE TURNER last season. It was great. It was my first August Wilson play. I had seen his work and I admire it. I was thrilled to do that with Lincoln Center Theater and Bart [Sher]. I think it was a bit of a departure from most productions because it was done without walls and done, sort of, more supporting the poetry of the play than the grittiness of the place which is the opposite of what FENCES is. I think what I love about Santo's set, I said to him, "I love this set, it looks like you can get tetanus from it!" You know, if you step in the wrong place you're going to get a nail or something in your foot. I love how rough it looks and how gritty and how grass can barely grow there. At the same time, there's a poetic beauty there that I really love, as well.

Santo Loquasto: The house is so small on the inside that I think it really seems credible from the audience. It's just the way it sits on the stage. It's really very tiny inside when you get into it. The kitchen; I did all sorts of tricks about the space inside the house that you just can't tell how shallow it is. It's almost like a dollhouse.

Nevin Steinberg: Ultimately, plays are about people saying words and the more that's a priority the more enjoyable it will be for the audience. With FENCES, that's entirely being accomplished and it's all a credit to the actors and the director.

Branford Marsalis: THE PIANO LESSON and Ma Rainey'S BLACK BOTTOM are great. In Ma Rainey'S where they sing those blues tunes. Music plays a central roles in his plays and in his development. It's part of how he grew up and it‘s part of his inspiration; there are always references to songs in his plays. I love that about his plays.

Constanza Romero: I love the Tony Awards where August appears onstage with James Earl Jones. It's classic.

Future On Film?

Kenny Leon: Absolutely. I'd do a film of it in a minute. I think it'd be a great feature film, or a made-for-tv event. That is, if you could get everyone together to watch it together like they used to. Scott Rudin, who is a big Hollywood producer is producing the Broadway show. When he first became interested in FENCES, I think he approached Denzel about doing a film version of FENCES and Denzel considered it but said he wanted to do it onstage first. To really get inside the skin of the character. I don't know what's going to happen with the future film plans for FENCES, but certainly it would be an amazing film. Certainly, all ten of his plays should be made into feature films. Before August passed away, the last thing he finished was an updated draft of a FENCES screenplay.

Constanza Romero: August wrote several drafts of a film treatment for FENCES. It's the only one of his plays that has an existent film script by August, besides THE PIANO LESSON that got made for HallMark Hall of Fame. As far as a big screen feature film version, FENCES is the only one August ever wrote.

I Hear Him Talking

Constanza Romero: Every time I see one of August's plays I hear him talking. You know, we have a twelve-year-old daughter: she has the same logical sense of humor as August. Do you know the point in the play when they talk about the driver's license? My daughter is sitting there, laughing uncontrollably. She has it in her bones, that same sense of logic and perception. For me, to have her dad still talk to her is... I could not wish for much more.

Exit Music

My sincerest thanks to all participants who have contributed to the success of this piecE. Wilson's work lives on through them and they keep the flame of his words and the music and lyrics contained within them. They are the instruments of his divine music. The music of the heart, the brain and the soul. Like the greatest songs of all time, Wilson's words play on each night for our delight and privilege on the stage. Broadway burns brighter because of him. This FENCES is much more a bridge between the future and the past and between us all.

The Grand Design of FENCES

Table of Contents


Part I - FENCES: First & Foremost 

      Collaboration & Beginnings

Part II - The Nuts & Bolts of FENCES 

      The Wonderful World of Wilson

      Acting August

      Moments of Pure Troy

      Rose Up & Sing

      Words & Music

Part III - FENCES & Bridges To The Future 

      No One Works ‘Til The Writer Writes

      You Could Get Tetanus From It

      Future On Film?

      I Hear Him Talking

Exit Music



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From This Author Pat Cerasaro

Pat Cerasaro contributes exclusive scholarly columns including InDepth InterViews, Sound Off, Theatrical Throwback Thursdays, Flash Friday and Flash Special as well as additional special features, (read more...)

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