By Vernon Jordan, III
August Wilson is a master playwright. Particularly for African Americans, Wilson lifts a daily life up into drama, - elevating them to the Gods, in Greek theatrical fashion. Wilson’s work is one that says, your life is full of valuable, useful, lovely, and ugly conflict; and there is something going on with you worth exploring and figuring out. In the canon of Black American playwrights -- like Lorraine Hansberry, Anna Deavere Smith, Ntozake Shange, Amiri Baraka (one of Wilson’s primary influences) and Tarell Alvin McCraney (of the recent multi-award winning film Moonlight ) -- and American playwrights in general, Wilson is legendary in his stories about family, generational trauma, and misunderstanding, and everyday life for those who are Black and working class in America. August Wilson takes what he hears and documents with care. It is this ethos, this love, that propelled him to defend, create, and stretch boundaries of what Black Theatre could be - as an artform, as philosophy, as a way of speaking and listening and showing love to Black tongues, to Black language.
Fences concern us with the life of Troy Maxon, a Black father, and husband living in 1950s Pittsburgh, in the struggle to take care of his family. Through the story, Troy recounts his trials in life and his swings with death -- ultimately facing the consequences of dreams unrealized and the familial tensions boiling underneath. August Wilson writes an ensemble community in Rose and Cory Maxon, Jim Bono and more. In the tradition of a Wilson tale, the story is extremely generation -- Black men move from integrating into Baseball leagues to new arenas like Football, with a prospect of scholarship and college education, for example. 2016’s film adaptation is a chance for a mass audience to see Wilson’s work and get to understand the everyday poetry living underneath the struggle.
The original Pulitzer and Tony award winning Fences is part of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh/Century Cycle, in which 10 plays take us through every decade of the 20th century in Black American life. The cycle starts in 1900 and ends in 1990 - each decade a new story, a new family, but always in Pittsburgh, always about the underdogs. I’ve personally seen and/or read The Piano Lesson (1930s), Radio Golf (1990s), and Jitney (1970s) (with Jitney holding a special place in my heart, having once acted a scene from the play in a studio acting class, and having shared stages with an originator of the role of Rena, Yvette Gainer).
In 1990, Hollywood was interested in bringing the play to the silver screen. August Wilson transformed the play into a screenplay, but he would not hand over the film to a White director like the industry asked him. Apparently, for a while, Eddie Murphy was signed on as producer. Wilson recounts the then-possibility of a Fences film in an original op-ed, saying: “I wanted to hire somebody talented, who understood the play and saw the possibilities of the film, who would approach my work with the same amount of passion and measure of respect with which I approach it, and who shared the cultural responsibilities of the characters...Someone who does not share the specifics of a culture remains an outsider, no matter how astute a student or how well-meaning their intentions.”
Fast-forward nearly twenty years later and Fences is transformed into cinema, under the direction of seasoned, multi-award-winning actor and director Denzel Washington. The top-billed cast of the film - the adult, gifted, and Black, Denzel, Viola Davis and Stephen McKinley Henderson (an actor that carried one of the most personal relationships with the playwright himself), who starred in the 2010 Broadway revival of the play -- reprise their roles as Troy, Rose, and Jim Bono here.
The film doesn’t move with the language of cinema so much. The camera holds still, for the most part, the soundtrack is minimal, and there are pretty much three locations (interior of the home, backyard, and the front porch/street). It’s not so much a moving picture as it is a digital documentation of a play. The words spilling from the depths of each character are what is prioritized here. The film is a family survey of a Black family - undoing some of the assumptions the Moynihan Report put forth. Particularly, Troy is met with the weight and specificity of Black womanhood and Black motherhood, of which he fails to understand. Rose’s “I been standing with you” monolog - the snotty one from the trailer - voices that claim, primarily.
Much of the acting makes me feels like I could walk right up on the porch and sit in the world. The conversations August wrote, the movements and gestures and spirit the actors lend to those words, sound like a sound-bite out of my childhood: like I overheard it once between the grown folks at a gathering.
And in Troy, or the dynamic between Troy and his youngest son Cory (Jovan Adepo), I saw my father and I. Where my Dad was an abusive alcoholic, charming, at times, ultimately loving, but nearly always, it seemed, only content with his role as the one who gave me this “pumping heart”, Troy does the same to Cory. Denzel embodies Troy as sleek and appealing. I found myself smiling at some of his isms right along with Rose and Jim Bono. The swag is something this generation of moviegoers will enjoy, or at least relate to, about him. Even in the ugly, he sways and rocks and talks sweetly. It is much different than his famed predecessor and role originator, James Earl Jones.
At least from what I can see in this clip, Jones plays an intimidating, angry Troy, with softness brewing underneath. From the filmed Denzel, I never get softness per se, as much as the struggle to get there. Viola shifts in tone and weight effortlessly. Part of me feels like maybe the two leads were too familiar with Wilson’s work, however - they’ve mastered them. Like it was hard to breathe something new into the bodies of the characters. They already knew where it was going. Maybe this is the effect of watching Viola Davis every week on How To Get Away With Murder, and having watched Denzel countless times. Henderson is saved from this by his lack of screen-time.
My favorite acting moment in the film actually sits in a scene between Cory and Raynell (young sis who is getting so much work right now, Saniyya Sidney), when they reprise a song about this dog named Blue - it’s simple, soft, and hits home about the lives of two siblings - very distant and very different, mind you - who find a similar beauty in their estranged father named Troy Maxon. This scene in particular highlights Wilson’s love for the Blues.
I wish the film were more kinetic, - that the camera and the characters moved through space more, that we got a sense of an overall world as opposed to a porch, that we spent more time, for instance, with Cory at football practice; but I imagine the script looks more like play than film, with priority on language.
I understand this adaptation of Wilson’s work as one that may conjure and reveal his insights to American audiences at large. Simply put: the film Fences is a remembering, an appreciation of the oral storytelling tradition, the everyday mouth of Black folks in this country, our languages and dialects, and a pure tribute to the legacy of playwright August Wilson. Our brother. Our stage documentarian. One of many chariots to take us away until we understand ourselves. On that note, the film is graceful and perfect.
Vernon Jordan, III (King V, on the mic) is a Philly-born 'n raised Writer, Filmmaker, and Poet, interested in stories about the interior lives of Black people and has a lifelong fascination with the supernatural and otherwise speculative/magical/funky shit. Recently graduated from Muhlenberg College ('16) with a BA in a self-designed major called Black Voice and Cultural Studies, Vernon is now in NYC as a Screenwriting MFA candidate at Brooklyn College's Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema ('19). Find more of his prose and poetry work on Huffington Post, The Establishment, Catapult Community, and Linden Avenue Literary Journal.